Drug trafficking gangs in Latin America are buying cheap passenger and cargo airplanes to bring their illegal cargo to Africa as a “technical stop” required before transfer into Europe.
“The sky is the limit" told a drug trafficker in Sierra Leone to an informant who relayed the statement to agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He was referring to the latest strategy being used by drug mafias in Latin America: taking advantage of the poor financial situation of fringe cargo airlines to buy old aircraft (DC-9 type) at low prices and use them to carry the drugs to Africa, as an intermediate step before introducing them into Europe.
The strategy represents an adjustment of traffickers to the escalation in seizures of sea vessels along the coast of Africa and the increased demand for drugs in Europe. According to Professor Scott Decker, director of the School of Criminology at the University of Arizona, in an interview with the BBC, the demand has grown so much that "it pays to buy a DC-9, and pay for fuel and the pilot to fly to Africa before making the leap to Europe.” "The traffickers would have previously use boats or small planes but now, by using equipment such as DC-9, they can get from Central and South America to Africa," Decker said. "Drug dealers, like most criminal organizations are dynamic and change. They can adapt to new markets and new attempts to stop them," added the expert.
Alarm over transatlantic flights with drugs started in November 2009 when a burned Boeing 727 was found in the desert of Mali after a flight from Venezuela. Police has information about at least three different drug gangs flying planes almost 5,000 miles over the Atlantic Ocean between the South American coast and Africa.
In recent months a gang operating between Colombia and Liberia was arrested when one of its planes was ready for departure from Venezuela with two tons of cocaine. Prosecutors said the operators had a planned “itinerary” of two flights per month.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that between 30 and 100 tons of drugs have passed through Africa in 2009 due to the growing European demand.
To deal with the problem, UNODC recently established a partnership with the World Customs Organization and Interpol to start a project that will improve airport intelligence and information sharing between Brazil and seven West African countries (Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo).
The project, called Aircop, has a budget of 3.2 million dollars, financed by the European Union and Canada. The objective is to support the efforts of the impoverished African states which lack the resources to intercept illegal flights.