US says gangs fly cocaine overseas
NEW YORK — US prosecutors in a series of court cases say they are beginning to unravel the latest innovation in drug smuggling: South American gangs that are buying old jets and other planes, filling them with cocaine, and flying them more than 3,000 miles across the ocean to Africa.
At least three gangs have struck deals to fly drugs to West Africa and from there to Europe, according to US indictments.
“The sky’s the limit,’’ one Sierra Leone trafficker boasted to a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, according to court documents.
Most of the cocaine flown to Africa is bound for Europe, where demand has been rising over the last decade. South American gangs are turning to airplanes because European navies have been intercepting more boat shipments along the African coast, trafficking experts say.
“We started stopping the maritime traffic, basically, so then they started going to air traffic more and more,’’ said Theodore Leggett of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
The UN agency began warning about trans-Atlantic drug planes after Nov. 2, 2009, when a burned-out
In the last year, arrests in Africa have begun shedding light on how the air routes work. The cases are being prosecuted in a New York federal court because some of the cocaine was supposed to have been sent to the United States. Recent US court cases include:
■ The Valencia-Arbelaez Organization, broken up by undercover US agents after it bought a $2 million plane to run monthly flights between Venezuela and Guinea. The group claimed to have six aircraft already flying.
■ A ring based in Colombia and Liberia, arrested after one of its planes was seized in May with two tons of cocaine as it prepared to leave Venezuela. Prosecutors say the group was planning to fly shipments twice a month. One defendant claimed to manage five other aircraft making similar hauls.
■ Three Sierra Leone men, accused of scouting out airstrips and arranging for a four-ton flight of cocaine from South America in March.