An unprecedented seizure of nearly half a ton of cocaine at the Russian embassy in Argentina has exposed an international drug ring that counted on help from corrupt officials in the police and diplomatic service.
Following a 14-month joint investigation by Argentine and Russian authorities, several individuals involved in an unusual scheme to traffic cocaine into Russia using diplomatic luggage were arrested on February 21, according to a press release from Argentina’s Security Ministry.
The astonishing saga began on December 13, 2016 when Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich received a tip from Russian Ambassador Viktor Koronelli suggesting that diplomatic suitcases being stored in a school on the embassy grounds should be searched.
Argentine authorities working in conjunction with the Russian federal security service entered the embassy in the dead of night and seized more than 850 pounds of high quality cocaine hidden inside the diplomatic luggage. Authorities then quickly fitted the bags with cameras and GPS tracking devices, replaced the cocaine with flour purchased from a Buenos Aires grocery store and put the suitcases back before embassy staff arrived the next day.
Власти Аргентины обнаружили 12 чемоданов с кокаином на территории российского посольства в Буэнос-Айресе. Предполагается, что их планировалось переправить дипломатической почтой в Россию и Европу pic.twitter.com/I32UtusTz6
— РБК (@ru_rbc) 22 de febrero de 2018
Over the course of the next year, investigators uncovered a network of six Argentine and Russian nationals involved in attempting to traffic what they still believed to be a valuable load of drugs into Russia.
Security Minister Bullrich said that the criminal network was headed by a Russian businessman identified only as “Mr. K.”
Ali Abyanov, who at the time was a Russian embassy official, is alleged to have been the drug ring’s main diplomatic contact.
Ivan Blizniouk, a Buenos Aires city police officer of Russian heritage, and his confidant Alexander Chikalo, who served as the embassy’s accountant, are alleged to have been in charge of logistics, including getting the drugs through Argentine customs.
The group failed to move the suitcases on three occasions throughout 2017, until on December 9 of that year the Russian government coordinated a flight for an official visit to Argentina, and the diplomatic luggage was loaded onto the plane.
Two days later in Moscow, Vladimir Kalmykov and Ishtimir Khudzamov were arrested by Argentine authorities as they attempted to collect the suitcases. Russian authorities simultaneously arrested Abyanov from his Moscow apartment.
Blizniouk and Chikalo were arrested by the Argentine national police in Buenos Aires two months later on February 21.
The mysterious “Mr. K” is thought to remain at large in Germany with an international order for his arrest, according to Security Minister Bullrich.
Based on statements made by Argentine and Russian authorities, it is unclear whether the cocaine may have been destined for sale during the upcoming 2018 World Cup games in Russia or for distribution to other European countries including Germany.
InSight Crime Analysis
The bizarre story of the cocaine bust in Russia’s Argentine embassy is out of the ordinary for drug trafficking dynamics between Latin America and Europe, raising questions about where the drugs were destined to go and how an Argentine police officer and Russian diplomats got caught up in the scheme in the first place.
Europe is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for cocaine trafficking in recent years, as Colombian-led networks attempt to cash in on booming production in the South American country. Massive shipments of cocaine have been seized in Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Germany. Earlier this month, a plan to smuggle half a ton of cocaine on a private jet from Colombia to the United Kingdom was also foiled. Attempts to traffic cocaine from Argentina into Spain and Portugal have also previously been intercepted by authorities.
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However, the Argentine-Russian network recently dismantled by authorities seems to be the first large-scale plot to move the drug into Europe through Russia. Although in the end the odd network of diplomats, businessmen and a police officer actually transported suitcases full of flour, the seized drugs were estimated to have a value in European markets of between $50 and $60 million.