Venezuela Sentences Low-Ranking Military in Air France Cocaine Bust

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Authorities in Venezuela sentenced 10 individuals for trafficking 1.4 tons of cocaine on an Air France flight in 2013, but the convicted did not include any high-level military officials — whose participation was almost certainly necessary for such a huge drug operation to occur. 

Three of the nine people sentenced to 22.5 years in prison are members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), Venezuela’s Attorney General’s Office announced on August 16. One other individual received a 10-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors say all of those convicted were involved in smuggling the cocaine aboard a September 2013 Air France flight from Caracas to Paris. French authorities at the time called it the biggest drug bust in that country’s history.

One of the convicted GNB officers handled a drug-sniffing dog, a second was an X-ray operator, and the third was in charge of counting inventory, according to the government’s press release. The GNB oversees security at Venezuela’s airports.

The other seven individuals were airport personnel. Charges against 17 other suspects, including a lieutenant colonel, are still pending. 

The Attorney General’s Office, known locally as the Public Ministry, also said that the alleged financier of the drug trafficking operation was extradited to Venezuela last week from Colombia, where he had been arrested in September 2015.

InSight Crime Analysis

Given the level to which the GNB controls Venezuela’s airports and the huge amount of cocaine loaded onto the flight, it’s hard to imagine that the highest ranking military officers involved in the Air France bust were canine handlers and X-ray operators.

“This was the most audacious [smuggling operation] in Venezuela‘s history,” Javier Mayorca, a Venezuelan journalist who investigated the case, told InSight Crime in 2013. “And it is absolutely unthinkable, impossible, that it was carried out without [military] cooperation at the very highest levels.” (Mayorca is now a contributor to InSight Crime.) 

Indeed, the Air France case became emblematic of the extent to which Venezuela’s military has deepened its involvement in drug trafficking. Cells of corrupt military officials, known collectively as the “Cartel of the Suns,” are believed to have strong links to Venezuela’s cocaine trade, and the airports have become one of the principal dispatch points for drug shipments. The headline of a September 2014 Washington Post article derisively reads: “Now boarding at a Venezuelan airport: cocaine.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cartel of the Suns

The recent convictions are part of a pattern developing in Venezuela, in which only low-ranking military officials are charged in high-level drug busts. Just this month, four National Guard members — none of whom were ranked higher than first lieutenant — were charged with conspiring to ship some 600 kilos of cocaine on a flight from Caracas to Mexico City. 

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