Tracking Down Bolivia’s Narco-Planes

Drug flights between the Peru-Bolivia air bridge have a relatively brief yet intense history. Hundreds of flights have created a new drug boom, especially in Peru’s Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE).

These drug flights have also created a frequently updated list of aerial accidents. It is illustrative of the precariousness which the feared aerial traffickers — who are mostly Bolivian — are all too willing to face, for the sake of making money. 

The line between landing and crashing the plane is a thin one. The planes frequently end up smashed in the jungle.

If the wreckage if found, a small group of police intelligence investigators will then begin a stubborn attempt to recreate what happened to the plane — and who were the owners. 

This article was previously published by IDL Reporteros, and was translated with permission. See the original here

On Saturday, September 5, another police patrol came to a mountain — this time, in the Valle de Vilcabamba jungle, in Cusco — in order to find the wreckage of a plane that crashed on August 22.

After waiting out a day due to bad weather, the patrol was transferred by two Mil Mi-17 helicopters to the mountain. There, they found the remains of the Bolivian plane. There wasn’t much left, but it was enough. 

It was a CP-2838 flight. The remains told nearly the exact same story as another accident, which happened in a different place and time in the Peruvian jungle. 

SEE ALSO:  Peru News and Profiles

The CP-2838 had been exported to Bolivia in 2013 by Martin Rapozo. In Bolivia, the aircraft was registered as belonging to Sandra Datzer Rodriguez, the wife of Fernando Rapozo, Martin’s brother. 

Fabricated in 1980, the aircraft had once been operational in Anchorage, Alaska — same as the other plane, the CP-2890, whose tragic end is described here. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the planes belonged to different owners, but were acquired the same month by Rapozo — July 2013 — and subsequently exported to Bolivia. 

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The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) registration for a plane later exported to Bolivia, to be used for drug flights. C/o IDL Reporteros.

 

Of course, a plane can serve many uses. But these two — bought the same month, in the same city, by Rapozo — were used for only one purpose.

As previously reported, the CP-2890 was recently found in the Peruvian jungle, alongside the body of the pilot and a 356.5 kilo shipment of cocaine.

The CP-2838, which was found just recently — crashed in Vilcabamba, loaded with cocaine. According to the information that IDL-Reporteros and Caretas has been able to collect, the pilot survived the accident and was able to communicate with someone in Bolivia via satellite phone. 

SEE ALSO:  Bolivia News and Profiles

According to the sources consulted, the owners of the drug shipment sent another plane to Peru, in order to drop off a survival kit for the pilot. Afterwards, at least two groups of people equipped with cell phones left the town of Llochegua. After a long walk — with help from local residents — they found the plane. It seems as though everyone — including the pilot and the cocaine — left the area just before the police arrived. 

Thus, the two planes that Marin Rapozo bought in July 2013 in Anchorage, Alaska, were used to traffic drugs, until they both crashed. 

Seems clear, doesn’t it? But that’s not all. 

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A drug plane that crashed near Peru’s Ene river, in July 2014. Photo c/o IDL Reporteros.

 

Martin Rapozo exported more than 30 planes from the United States to Bolivia. And — judging by what we know thus far — he was able to do this with impunity for several years.  

The closest thing to an unwilling Kamikaze may be a Bolivian flying a drug plane. Another plane crash — registered August 22, 2014 — gives us some idea of how long Rapozo was involved in exporting and operating drug planes. That day, the remains of another plane wreck — serial number CP-2571 — was found in Boca Sanibeni, Satipo. Only the body of the pilot was found there. 

The closest thing to an unwilling Kamikaze may be a Bolivian flying a drug plane.

In 2008, six years before the accident, the plane had been exported to Bolivia by Christine Urnezis Rapozo, Martin’s wife. They both lived in Tarpon Springs, Florida. In Bolivia, the plane was registered under the name of Luis Alberto Suarez, a rancher with past ties to drug trafficking.

Seven years later, in February 2015, Rapozo continued exporting planes to Bolivia. That month, a Cessna TU206G — acquired by Rapozo three months earlier — had its US license canceled and was exported to Bolivia. 

In total, Rapozo and his family exported 33 planes to Bolivia in order to be used for drug trafficking, according to the evidence that emerged from numerous accidents, sightings, and arrests. 

 15-09-18-peru-Clan-Familiar-Rapozo-1A family tree of the Rapozo clan. C/o IDL Reporteros. 

 

Sometimes Rapozo exported the planes to himself. This is what happened with aircraft CP-2812, which crashed (yes, another one) in November 2014 in Constitucion, Oxapampa. The aircraft — which previously had the gringo serial number of N9497R — was exported to Bolivia in September 2013 by Rapozo Export, which has Rapozo’s house listed as the company’s address, in Tarpon Springs, Florida? The owner of the plane in Bolivia? Martin Rapozo, who listed his occupation as as “rancher” and “civilian pilot.” 

According to what Bolivian and Peruvian police anti-drug intelligence were able to establish, there were other times when Rapozo exported planes to likely frontmen. Eight of these were identified by the Bolivian anti-drug force, the FELCN. 

You would think that the US would try harder to ensure that junky US planes are not exported to Bolivia…

Originally from Bolivia’s northeastern Beni state, Rapozo has a pilot’s license in the US and a few businesses in Tarpon Spring. Curiously enough, he and his wife once filed for bankruptcy in southern Florida, according to court documents.

Nevertheless, Rapozo has 10 planes — out of the 33 that were exported to Bolivia — registered to his name. 

How does a scheme like this operate with impunity for so many years? Given the amount of effort that the US Embassy has put into ensuring that Peru does not implement an aerial interdiction program, you would think that they would try harder to ensure that junky US planes are not exported to Bolivia, and used repeatedly in drug flights until they crash somewhere in the Peruvian jungle.  

This was not the case for another company: Pilotmec Aircraft Services Inc., based in Pembroke Pines, in Broward, Florida.

This company exported a plane to Bolivia in 2013, where it was registered until the serial number of CP-2821. It was immediately put to use towards drug flights, until it crashed during an attempted take-off from the Peruvian town of Paquichari, on the Ene river, in May 2015.

Shortly afterwards, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrived to Pilotmec headquarters in Pembroke Pines and seized three planes. According to reliable sources, they also seized a list of another 17 aircraft that were set to be exported to Bolivia.

Pilotmec had also sold planes to the Rapozo family, in Bolivia.

This wasn’t the only DEA action in Florida. Last March, alongside Border Patrol agents, they inspected the Opa Locka airport and seized a Cessna 206. The plane had just landed from Key West, and was preparing for a longer flight, to Bolivia. The pilot indicated that he would have been paid $2,000 to do so. Instead of making the trip to Bolivia, the venerable Cessna, first fabricated in the 1970s, was seized. Perhaps the Peruvian jungle was saved from another plane crash. 

Nevertheless, the Rapozos and groups continued arriving to Bolivia, forming part of the cocaine air bridge, with all of its terrifying landings, unlucky take-offs, and almost inevitable crashes. You would think that before Peru begins its aerial interdiction program, the cocaine air bridge will end itself, due to all the accidents. But in the meantime, so long as there’s no effective interdiction, the Rapozos and other groups will ensure there’s no shortage of junky planes moving drug shipments across the skies. 

This article was originally published by IDL Reporteros in partnership with Caretas, and was translated with permission. See the original here