Cocaine haul bolsters claim Venezuela a drug conduit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 4:26am


The smuggling of 1.4 tonnes of cocaine in 31 suitcases on an Air France flight from Caracas to Paris has led to nine arrests on two continents, and Venezuela's top police official said that he expected more arrests with airline workers suspected.

Yet the massive, quarterbillion US dollar haul, kept quiet for nearly two weeks by authorities, also lends credence to Washington's accusations that Venezuela has become a major drug transit country due to high-level corruption in its military. It controls Simon Bolivar International Airport, the drugs' port of departure.

France's interior minister, Manuel Valls, praised the investigation that led to six arrests in France and three in Venezuela. But he questioned how nearly three dozen suitcases stuffed with illicit drugs could get through security at a major airport and make it aboard a single commercial flight. The haul had an estimated street value of US$270 million.

"It's not normal that you can carry more than a tonne of cocaine on an Air France plane," he said on Europe-1 radio. "The fight against drugs requires all the players, notably transport companies, to participate in this co-operation."

Valls said police knew where and to whom the drugs were heading but wouldn't divulge the information or provide details on who was arrested.

His Venezuelan counterpart, Miguel Rodriguez, told reporters that "mafias comprised of Italian and English citizens" were involved and that French police had been tracking them since July.

The Paris prosecutor's office said the six people in custody were to appear before a judge yesterday to determine whether they would be charged. A spokeswoman said none were French but would not discuss their nationality. Britain's Foreign Office said three Britons were among those arrested.

Rodriguez said authorities had interviewed more than 15 people and "in the coming hours we will surely be announcing more arrests".

On Sunday, police arrested two National Guard sergeants and the lieutenant assigned to anti-drug duties at the airport. Rodriguez said the authorities "presume complicity at the airline".

He noted that each of the 31 suitcases would have been far over the usual maximum baggage weight allowed at an average of more than 45kg each.

The Colombian cocaine was placed on Flight 368, which departed on September 10, and seized the following morning at Charles de Gaulle Airport, he said. Air France said it was working with police and conducting an internal investigation. The baggage tickets had fake names, said Alejandro Keleris, director of Venezuela's anti-drug agency.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said the case supports US accusations of high-level support for drug trafficking in Venezuela's military, as it was unlikely two sergeants and a lieutenant acted alone.