Each suitcase held 40kg of cocaine

Behind the biggest cocaine haul in French history were members of Venezuela's military. InSight Crime's investigation reveals the trafficking methods used by corrupt military cells and the covert international police operation that brought the smuggling ring down.

The seizure was extraordinary, both for the amount and the fact it had arrived by air, UN drug trafficking expert Thomas Pietschmann told the New York Times. How did 1.3 tons of cocaine make its way on to an Air France commercial passenger plane traveling between two of the world's major international airports?

The drugs had been packed into 31 bright-colored suitcases (later lined up and displayed on French television) and assigned names that did not correspond with any of the passengers on the plane. It was immediately clear that there was extensive involvement of Venezuela's National Guard (GNB), which manages Caracas' international airport of Maiquetia.

"Anyone who has witnessed the elaborate controls the National Guard keeps over every aspect of passenger and bag movements in Maiquetia -- where woe be onto you if you try to leave the country with two packs of coffee in your bag as souvenirs -- knows perfectly well you can’t get [31] ghost bags onto a plane without them knowing about it," wrote Venezuelan blogger and analyst Francisco Toro.

The involvement of Venezuela's military in drug trafficking has been increasing, progressing from simply facilitating the trade in the 1990s to actively purchasing and transporting product during the 2000s. But 1.3 tons of cocaine loaded onto a commercial flight takes the brazenness of this trafficking to new levels.

"This was the most audacious [smuggling operation] in Venezuela's history," says Javier Mayorca, a journalist who has been investigating the case. "And it is absolutely unthinkable, impossible, that it was carried out without [military] cooperation at the very highest levels."

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Sources with knowledge of Maquetia airport consulted by InSight Crime say the cocaine-stuffed suitcases did not pass through the inside of the building but instead arrived on a vehicle that entered through a tradesmen's entrance on the airport's western side. This way they avoided the scanning system and the possibility of being discovered by National Guard members not involved in the operation.

According to Elisio Guzman, the ex-director of Venezuela's national police investigations agency Cicpc, the shipment was probably then kept in one of the airport's "sterile zones": a term used to describe warehouses where previously-checked baggage is stored.

This conflicts with the version given by Venezuela's National Anti-Drugs Office (ONA), whose director Alejandro Keleris recently told press that video evidence showed the suitcases did pass through scanners.

It still had to make its way onto the plane, however, which would have been one of the most challenging parts of the operation, according to Mayorca. "Weight has to be extremely carefully distributed on a plane, and this was a huge amount of weight," he said. "The flight dispatcher or load planner, who assigns where baggage will be distributed throughout the hold, is one of the most important jobs in the airline crew and in this case they had to be complicit in what was going on."

Alejandro Rebolledo, an ex-judge and anti-money laundering advisor, told Mayorca he had information the drug trafficking group -- believed to be formed of civilian criminals and collaborating military members -- had been testing the route for months. They would replace genuine passengers' suitcases with others carrying cocaine, that then disappeared upon arrival in France. "Passengers' suitcases didn't arrive, and would then arrive a day later," delivered directly to Paris, he said. "This kept happening," he said. French police began to pay attention due to the frequency of the complaints.

European police already had a close eye on Venezuela and its military, said Mildred Camero, a former judge and the ex-president of the ONA, due to former interdictions and years of evidence that senior figures had collaborated with Colombian guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to exchange weapons for drugs.

Camero told InSight Crime that police in France, Italy and Spain had launched a joint investigation some months previous, operating undercover in Europe and Venezuela without the knowledge of the Venezuelan government. "They could not tell the Venezuelan government what was going on, because they knew that high-ranking Venezuelan military officials were involved."

Italian police managed to infiltrate the criminal operation, she said, getting details from informants about collaboration between the Venezuelans and the Ndrangheta, the powerful Italian mafia who are estimated to control 80 percent of the cocaine coming into Europe. The 'Ndrangheta were due to receive the shipment, which Camero believes was originally purchased by the GNB from the FARC in the border state of Apure.

The plan was closely followed from July onwards, she said. On the day itself, European police boarded the plane disguised as regular passengers, Camero believes. Once the suitcases were offloaded, 900 kilos of cocaine were followed to Luxembourg, while another 400 kilos were followed to a storehouse in the center of Paris, before all was seized. "This was a totally controlled operation," said Camero. The shipment's final destination was the Italian city of Napoli.

What remains unknown is whether the flight crew were involved in the sting. Did the pilot, the air stewardesses, know who and what was on their plane? None were arrested in France, which suggests they may have been working with police. It is unlikely that Air France would have wanted the negative publicity arising from the seizure, but they may not have had any choice about whether it took place or not.

Meanwhile in Venezuela, 28 people have now been detained -- National Guard members, including a lieutenant colonel, one of their wives, Air France employees, Caracas airport staff, and one person who has not been identified. ONA director Keleris said on October 15 that an order of detention for the "owner" of the drugs had also been issued, but did not reveal their identity.

Three Italians and three British citizens were also arrested in Paris. However no senior GNB figures have been held accountable.

The Venezuelan arrests are pure window dressing, says Mayorca, and do not target those truly responsible. An examination of the financial accounts of the detained has failed to uncover any suspicious transactions, apart from one payment of $57,000 for a house made by the wife on the list (a discovery which sparked her arrest). "That is peanuts," he said, given the value of the haul estimated at around $270 million by a source close to the French investigation. "Hundreds of millions of dollars changed hands, where is it?”

Family members of the accused protested their innocence and the lack of a proper judicial process outside a court near the airport earlier this month, claiming they had been made scapegoats.

A parliamentary commission has been set up to investigate the case, but is likely to be a total whitewash, according to Camero and other analysts.

The military is a crucial power base for President Nicolas Maduro, as it was for his predecessor Hugo Chavez, and loyalty is valued above all else in a government with an extreme concentration of power in its leadership. Offering different theories as to why allegations of drug trafficking within the GNB had never been properly investigated, analyst James Bosworth said it could be that "Maduro knows the Venezuelan military is corrupted by organized crime, but is afraid to move against them."

As for the parliamentary commission, the members "are not independent of the Executive so are not going to point fingers at the National Guard," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert with the Washington Office on Latin America. They will likely highlight the international dimension of this, he added: collaborators in Air France, Paris, and the broader drug trafficking network. "The only time the government would crack down on anything is for political reasons. Maduro is willing to turn a blind eye to corruption."

"They will say that it was civilians trafficking the drugs, that it was members of opposition extremists," said Camero, who believes involvement in drug trafficking is endemic throughout the military, even at its highest levels. "The investigation will go absolutely nowhere."