TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) – In early 2008, an official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a report to his superiors detailing what he called “the most significant development in the criminal exploitation of aircraft since 9/11.”
World | Mexico
The document warned that a growing fleet of rogue jet aircraft was regularly crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean. On one end of the air route, it said, are cocaine-producing areas in the Andes controlled by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. On the other are some of West Africa’s most unstable countries.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, was ignored, and the problem has since escalated into what security officials in several countries describe as a global security threat.
The clandestine fleet has grown to include twin-engine turboprops, executive jets and retired Boeing 727s that are flying multi-ton loads of cocaine and possibly weapons to an area in Africa where factions of al Qaeda are believed to be facilitating the smuggling of drugs to Europe, the officials say.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been held responsible for car and suicide bombings in Algeria and Mauritania. Gunmen and bandits linked to the group have also stepped up kidnappings of Europeans, who are then passed on to AQIM factions seeking ransom payments.
The aircraft hopscotch across South American countries, picking up tons of cocaine and jet fuel, officials say. They then soar across the Atlantic to West Africa and the Sahel, where the drugs are funneled across the Sahara Desert and into Europe.
An examination of documents and interviews with officials in the United States and three West African nations suggest that at least 10 aircraft have been discovered using this air route since 2006. Officials warn that many of these aircraft were detected purely by chance. They warn that the real number involved in the networks is likely considerably higher.
Alexandre Schmidt, regional representative for West and Central Africa for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, cautioned in Dakar this week that the aviation network has expanded in the past 12 months and now likely includes several Boeing 727 aircraft.
“When you have this high capacity for transporting drugs into West Africa, this means that you have the capacity to transport as well other goods, so it is definitely a threat to security anywhere in the world,” said Schmidt. The “other goods” officials are most worried about are weapons that militant organizations can smuggle on the jet aircraft. A Boeing 727 can handle up to 10 tons of cargo.
The U.S. official who wrote the report for the Department of Homeland Security said the al Qaeda connection was unclear at the time. The official is a counter-narcotics aviation expert who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to speak on the record. He said he was dismayed by the lack of attention to the matter since he wrote the report.
“You’ve got an established terrorist connection on this side of the Atlantic. Now on the Africa side you have the al Qaeda connection and it’s extremely disturbing and a little bit mystifying that it’s not one of the top priorities of the government,” he said.
Since the September 11 attacks, the security system for passenger air traffic has been ratcheted up in the United States and throughout much of the rest of the world, with the latest measures imposed just weeks ago after a failed bomb attempt on a Detroit-bound plane on December 25.
“The bad guys have responded with their own aviation network that is out there everyday flying loads and moving contraband,” said the official, “and the government seems to be oblivious to it.”
The upshot, he said, is that militant organizations — including groups like the FARC and al Qaeda — have the “power to move people and material and contraband anywhere around the world with a couple of fuel stops.” The lucrative drug trade is already having a deleterious impact on West African nations. Local authorities told Reuters they are increasingly outgunned and unable to stop the smugglers.
And significantly, many experts say, the drug trafficking is bringing in huge revenues to groups that say they are part of al Qaeda. It’s swelling not just their coffers but also their ranks, they say, as drug money is becoming an effective recruiting tool in some of the world’s most desperately poor regions.
U.S. President Barack Obama has chided his intelligence officials for not pooling information “to connect those dots” to prevent threats from being realized. But these dots, scattered across two continents like flaring traces on a radar screen, remain largely unconnected and the fleets themselves are still flying.
THE AFRICAN CONNECTION
The deadly cocaine trade always follows the money, and its cash-flush traffickers seek out the routes that are the mostly lightly policed. Beset by corruption and poverty, weak countries across West Africa have become staging platforms for transporting between 30 tons and 100 tons of cocaine each year that ends up in Europe, according to U.N. estimates. Drug trafficking, though on a much smaller scale, has existed here and elsewhere on the continent since at least the late 1990s, according to local authorities and U.S. enforcement officials.
Earlier this decade, sea interdictions were stepped up. So smugglers developed an air fleet that is able to transport tons of cocaine from the Andes to African nations that include Mauritania, Mali, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau. What these countries have in common are numerous disused landing strips and makeshift runways — most without radar or police presence. Guinea Bissau has no aviation radar at all.
As fleets grew, so, too, did the drug trade.
The DEA says all aircraft seized in West Africa had departed Venezuela. That nation’s location on the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard of South America makes it an ideal takeoff place for drug flights bound for Africa, they say.
A number of aircraft have been retrofitted with additional fuel tanks to allow in-flight refueling — a technique innovated by Mexico’s drug smugglers. (Cartel pilots there have been known to stretch an aircraft’s flight range by putting a water mattress filled with aviation fuel in the cabin, then stacking cargoes of marijuana bundles on top to act as an improvised fuel pump.)
Ploys used by the cartel aviators to mask the flights include fraudulent pilot certificates, false registration documents and altered tail numbers to steer clear of law enforcement lookout lists, investigators say. Some aircraft have also been found without air-worthiness certificates or log books. When smugglers are forced to abandon them, they torch them to destroy forensic and other evidence like serial numbers.
The evidence suggests that some Africa-bound cocaine jets also file a regional flight plan to avoid arousing suspicion from investigators. They then subsequently change them at the last minute, confident that their switch will go undetected.
One Gulfstream II jet, waiting with its engines running to take on 2.3 tons of cocaine at Margarita Island in Venezuela, requested a last-minute flight plan change to war-ravaged Sierra Leone in West Africa. It was nabbed moments later by Venezuelan troops, the report seen by Reuters showed.
Once airborne, the planes soar to altitudes used by commercial jets. They have little fear of interdiction as there is no long-range radar coverage over the Atlantic. Current detection efforts by U.S. authorities, using fixed radar and P3 aircraft, are limited to traditional Caribbean and north Atlantic air and marine transit corridors.
The aircraft land at airports, disused runways or improvised air strips in Africa. One bearing a false Red Cross emblem touched down without authorization onto an unlit strip at Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone in 2008, according to a U.N. report.
Late last year a Boeing 727 landed on an improvised runway using the hard-packed sand of a Tuareg camel caravan route in Mali, where local officials said smugglers offloaded between 2 and 10 tons of cocaine before dousing the jet with fuel and burning it after it failed to take off again.
For years, traffickers in Mexico have bribed officials to allow them to land and offload cocaine flights at commercial airports. That’s now happening in Africa as well. In July 2008, troops in coup-prone Guinea Bissau secured Bissau international airport to allow an unscheduled cocaine flight to land, according to Edmundo Mendes, a director with the Judicial Police.
“When we got there, the soldiers were protecting the aircraft,” said Mendes, who tried to nab the Gulfstream II jet packed with an estimated $50 million in cocaine but was blocked by the military. “The soldiers verbally threatened us,” he said.
The cocaine was never recovered. Just last week, Reuters photographed two aircraft at Osvaldo Vieira International Airport in Guinea Bissau — one had been dispatched by traffickers from Senegal to try to repair the other, a Gulfstream II jet, after it developed mechanical problems. Police seized the second aircraft.
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Tim Gaynor and Tiemoko Diallo – Reuters