The Julia brothers

The two sons of a former air force general were sentenced to 13 years in prison for drug trafficking, the conclusion of a dramatic case indicative of Argentina's new status as a popular export point for cocaine.

Gustavo and Eduardo Julia were sentenced by a Barcelona court after the month long trial. The two brothers were caught in a Barcelona airport on January 2, 2011, after they landed a business jet plane loaded with 945 kilos of cocaine. Eduardo Julia piloted the plane, while Gustavo is the owner of the company that chartered the aircraft.

Their co-pilot, Matias Miret, was absolved by the court. Miret has insisted that he had no idea that the Challenger 604 was carrying a hidden cocaine shipment. The Julia brothers also argued that they did not know the aircraft was carrying cocaine. They said they were hired by an unidentified client to ship artwork between Argentina and Spain. All three men are the sons of military figures who held top ranks in the air force during Argentina's dictatorship.  

The drugs were hidden in secret panels within a couch and a closet. The Spanish Civil Guard inspected the flight after it landed, when a drug detection dog pointed to the hidden stash. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The Julia brothers case was one of the biggest ever busts involving traffickers moving illegal narcotics from Argentina to Spain. A comparable seizure took place in April 2010, when Spanish authorities found over 800 kilograms of cocaine inside a truck, which had been loaded with drugs in Argentina. Such cases raised new concerns over Argentina's increased popularity as a transhipment point for cocaine headed to Europe. 

One question unresolved by the trial was whether the Julia brothers formed part of a larger drug trafficking network. Spain's Public Ministry has said that there is another criminal organization behind the Julia operation, but authorities have not yet publicly identified it. 

Argentina's largest newspaper, Clarin, has reported that in April 2010, the brothers made a brief trip to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where they may have made contact with Colombian suppliers. Santa Cruz is a known drug trafficking hot spot in Bolivia, where Colombian and Brazilian organizations are believed to have some presence. Bolivian anti-drug police later reported arresting a Colombian national thought to have some connection to the Barcelona drug shipment. 

According to Clarin, court documents have stated that one of the Julia brothers had the cell phone number of a Colombian contact in the drug trafficking business known only as "Henry." This could be Colombian drug lord Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre,” who was arrested in Argentina in October 2012. Justice authorities in Argentina are reportedly investigating whether this "Henry" was indeed linked to the "narco jet" scheme.

Regardless of who exactly the suppliers of the Julia brothers may have been, evidence points to a well-organized and wide-ranging operation. The 945 kilos of cocaine were loaded onto the aircraft in Moron, a city just outside Buenos Aires. It appears as though another drug trafficking organization was responsible for moving the cocaine shipment to Moron, while the Julias were hired to fly the product to Europe. The Julias had made several previous cross-Atlantic flights, using a Hawker jet. They typically chose to land in small airports with scarce air traffic control service, just outside major Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona. 

The case also raises the question of whether there was any official complicity that allowed the brothers to take off in the first place. The Argentine Air Force, customs officials, and airport security police have all deflected blame for the incident. It's worth noting that the Julias are a well-known family in the aviation business: even Nestor Kirchner and current President Cristina Kirchner flew on one of their chartered flights during the 2003 presidential campaign.