Arrest of Drug Flight ‘Emperor’ Shows Venezuela’s Role as Departure Point

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Colombian authorities have captured an individual suspected of shipping drugs from Venezuela using modified airplanes, a reminder of the latter country’s key role in aerial drug trafficking.

Colombia’s anti-narcotic police captured Antonio José Meléndez Suárez at Bogotá’s El Dorado international airport on May 19, reported El Tiempo. Meléndez, whom Colombian authorities have dubbed “the emperor of aerial trafficking” is an alleged member of a criminal organization that used planes to fly illegal substances from Venezuela to Central America.

According to Anti-Narcotic Police Deputy Director Tito Castellanos, the criminal organization to which Meléndez allegedly belonged purchased planes in Central America and modified them in the Venezuelan state of Apure, enabling them to ship over one ton of drugs per flight.

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Authorities believe Meléndez was personally responsible for financing the purchase of planes in Central America and drugs in the Colombian departments of Guaviare, Meta and Vichada.

“His wealth allowed him to finance the purchase of drugs in Colombia’s eastern plains and airplanes in Central America, especially from drug traffickers based in Mexico, as well as Honduran criminal organizations,” reads a statement by Colombian police obtained by EFE.

According to some reports, Meléndez worked as the alleged link between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Urabeños, while others allege he worked for shadowy groups within the Venezuelan military dedicated to drug trafficking, known as the “Cartel of the Suns” (“Cartel de los Soles”). 

On May 15, a US court in Washington, DC issued a warrant for Meléndez’s arrest, and US authorities have requested his extradition.

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The case of the recently-arrested Meléndez serves as a reminder of the crucial role Venezuela has come to play in aerial drug trafficking across the region.

Earlier this year, Costa Rica’s Security Minister Gustavo Mata Vega presented a satellite map before the Legislative Assembly showing drug boats and planes traveling between South and Central America. The map shows Venezuela as the single largest departure point for drug flights in the region. (See below)

At the same time, the tactic employed by Meléndez’s group — purchasing planes abroad to use them to ship narcotics — is not altogether new or unique. In 2015, authorities in Paraguay dismantled a corruption network that involved officials of the National Anti-Drug Secretary (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD) and the Board for Civilian Airforce (Dirección Nacional de Aeronáutica Civil – DINAC) who helped introduce old planes purchased in the United States into the country, where they were used by drug trafficking groups.

What appears to be novel about Meléndez’s case is the degree of sophistication his organization displayed in attempting to maximize its profits. Modifying the planes in order to ensure they could carry more narcotics is a powerful indication that the group was seeking out and employing advanced drug smuggling tactics.  

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