Record cocaine bust on Air France plane raises complicity questions

Sept. 24, 2013 at 12:03 AM
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NANTERRE, France, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- A record seizure of 1.3 tons of pure cocaine aboard an Air France airliner raises questions about possible complicity of French airport workers, police say.

French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls on Saturday announced in Nanterre, France, that cocaine with a street value of at least $270 million was seized aboard an aircraft at the Roissy airport and in a truck bound for Luxembourg, making it the largest cocaine bust in French history.

Some 31 leather suitcases packed with 900 kilograms of the drug were found on the aircraft, registered to non-existent passengers, while 400 more kilograms were discovered in the truck, Le Figaro reported.

Valls said during a press conference at the Central Office for the Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs it was likely the cocaine was being imported from Colombia by the Italian 'Ndrangheta crime mafia for distribution throughout Europe.

Valls congratulated police on the "great victory," adding that "several" people of at least seven different nationalities had been arrested and placed in custody. The investigation, which lasted for weeks, was conducted in collaboration with British and Dutch Spanish authorities.

"This case illustrates the importance of strengthening international cooperation in the fight against traffickers," Valls said. "They set up new strategies every time ... They diversify drug routes. We must constantly adapt our services and our strategies to these changes."

The 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, has a particularly strong presence in Germany. The crime group initially specialized in extortion and kidnappings for ransom, then in the 1970s branched out into drug trafficking.

Today it controls about 80 percent of cocaine imports into Europe, placing large orders each month to South American traffickers.

Four tons of cocaine have been seized in France so far this year, the interior minister said. The biggest previous busts came in March 2011, when 700 kilograms of cocaine transported in a cargo ship from Panama and seized the port of Le Havre, and in May 2009 with the seizure of 584 kilograms found inside a truck arriving Spain, the newspaper reported.

The scale of the trafficking aboard a commercial jetliner suggests the complicity of airline and airport workers, Frederic Vaux, deputy director of the Central Judicial Police, told the French weekly L'Express.

"It is hard to imagine how the drug could move as easily and without the knowledge and help of airport employees," he said, while refusing to confirm speculation that airport staffers at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and Air France workers had been questioned by police.

"At this point, the available evidence has not yet established how such events could be possible given strict company procedures for baggage and cargo onboard," Vaux said.

In the meantime, the French airline announced it had launched an internal investigation.

The Journal du Dimanche reported the cocaine was packaged in vacuum-packed bags, each holding 1.1 kilograms worth about $47,000 each. Some bore the inscription "Patek Philippe -- Geneve," while others were marked with a red cross or two parallel lines.

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