The Hawker jet took off from Tapachula, in the south of Mexico, bound for the Dominican Republic. The crew had a local contact who had taken care of all the logistics, from coordinating the landing to paying a bribe of $150,000 to the airport authorities in La Romana, a small city on the eastern tip of the island. The bribe was crucial to obtaining a fake flight plan, one of the strategy’s key elements. After the stopover in the Caribbean, the plane supposedly continued to Brazil according to its fake itinerary, then suddenly disappeared from radar.
In fact, flying at low altitude, the aircraft, manned by Rupert de la Casas with Mexican Ronier Sánchez as co-pilot, was on its way to Venezuela, where it was to pick up 1,650 kilos of cocaine from a clandestine airstrip in the Venezuelan savannah, close to the Colombian border. From there, it was to fly to Honduras, where the buyer was located. If all went according to plan, the cocaine would then be loaded onto trucks and driven back to southern Mexico and finally transported to the US. But nothing turned out as expected. The jet crash-landed just short of the Venezuelan landing strip before the cocaine could be picked up.
Having tracked the aircraft and intercepted calls, the authorities were all set to home in on the traffickers and arrest them after they had collected the cocaine. But the crash foiled their operation. Sánchez, de la Casas and another co-conspirator survived the crash and vanished without a trace. It was August 7, 2016. The US authorities issued wanted posters and an Interpol Red Notice to track Roni down, and opened the case against four defendants later that year.
Assuming nine different identities, Roni managed to dodge US authorities until Monday, March 22, 2021, when he landed in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, in the heart of South America. Coming from Brazil, he went through migration along with everyone else and stayed in an apart-hotel in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. He had a return ticket to Brazil for Saturday, perhaps unaware that the Brazilian authorities and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had already warned the Paraguayan Anti-Drug Secretariat (Senad) of his movements.
Roni was arrested two days later when several armed officers burst into his room. His photo was sent to every press agency and even Paraguayan President Mario Abdo announced his capture on his social networks, calling him “one of the US justice system’s most wanted narco-pilots.”
The Paraguayan anti-drug agency said that the Mexican worked “for cartels in Mexico and Colombia,” handling international trafficking by air from cocaine production zones in South America to redistribution centers in Central America and the Caribbean, “controlled by Mexican cartels.” The US justice system did not give details of which cartel or group Roni belonged to and, according to Paraguayan security sources, Roni has not been forthcoming either on the issue.
“Preliminary reports indicated that he was hiding in Suriname,” said Paraguayan International Affairs prosecutor, Manuel Doldan. “How did he pop up in Paraguay? That I don’t know.” The DEA narrowed his hiding place down to Brazil and neighboring Paraguay. “He came to Paraguay to buy airplanes for his organization,” Joel Torres, the head of the Paraguayan Attorney General’s Office’s extradition department, told EL PAÍS.
The actual extradition went smoothly and entailed no flight risk. Roni was escorted by officers at the airport wearing a bulletproof vest and a helmet. He hardly blinked as if he knew his arrest had only been a matter of time. What was difficult and lengthy was the process leading up to his extradition, says Torres. Roni’s Paraguayan lawyers appealed on the grounds that the US had no jurisdiction in the case, unnecessarily dragging out the procedure, according to Torres. In the meantime, Roni spent nearly a year and a half in custody at the same prison in Asunción that Brazilian soccer player Ronaldinho was held in shortly before. Finally, under heavy security, he was extradited to the United States on July 22.
No one could dispute the fact that Sánchez had given the authorities the run-around. It took five years to arrest him and six before he was finally extradited to the state of Connecticut, where he is now facing trial. During the course of the manhunt across half of Latin America, Sánchez appeared sanguine, posting photos of himself with friends and family on Facebook and Instagram, and boasting of trips to iconic destinations such as the Egyptian pyramids. He also shared his political views online and made no secret of his passion for flying. Everything he posted on social networks suggested that he was in Mexico, living a carefree existence.
In 2017, the year after the plane crash, Ronier Sánchez took a university degree as an aviator pilot, according to records from the Ministry of Public Education. On LinkedIn, he calls himself Ronnier Sanz and claims to have experience as a pilot for a parcel company, to have been first officer of Aeromexico and founder of an aeronautical company based in Seattle. He even had business cards made as director of the company.
While Roni still proudly accepted compliments from friends and family, who admired his success as a businessman, other elements of his trafficking network were being processed by the US judicial system. Carlos Almonte Vásquez, Sánchez’s Dominican contact, agreed to plead guilty in the US courts in exchange for a reduced sentence. In fact, Vásquez was also indicted in New York on another cocaine trafficking charge: just three months after the plane crash in Venezuela, Almonte and another group attempted to transport Colombian drugs from Ecuador, but were arrested on a stopover in Haiti en route to Honduras.
The pilot on that occasion was American Todd Macaluso, a lawyer known for amassing a large fortune in the injury claims business and who lost his license after being accused of cheating his clients. After his release from prison, Macaluso set up business as a pilot, but because he was still on parole, he had to notify the police whenever he traveled, especially outside the US. He boasted of having a lot of experience flying to Mexico and even claimed in a US court that he worked as a pilot for the Kardashian family “for years.”
After Macaluso went bankrupt as a private aviator, a friend arranged a meeting with some Mexican drug traffickers at a seafood restaurant in Tijuana. A couple of days later, Macaluso took a flight to Orlando, Florida, and then flew to Haiti, bringing him into contact with Almonte Vásquez.
After picking up the drugs in Ecuador, the plan was to take 1.5 tons of cocaine to Honduras, where it was to be purchased by Bayron El Negro Ruiz, one of Ecuador’s most dangerous narcos; the Honduran press has linked Ruiz to the Sinaloa cartel and also the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation, two of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations, and there are also suspicions of his collaboration with top-level politicians in a country which has become a springboard for transcontinental drug routes. As the man in charge of getting a great deal of merchandise across Central America and Mexico to the US, Ruiz was arrested in Guatemala in 2018 after being caught presenting a fake ID to the authorities. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2021 after pleading guilty to drug trafficking.
It was during the investigation of Vásquez’s case that the authorities became aware of a new trafficking trend involving the use of freelancers to shift the merchandise – pilots in desperate circumstances like Macaluso, or pilots with no commitment to any specific cartel like Roni. The international cocaine business has become a game of intermediaries, almost all of them with their own specialty that acts as a link in the long chain that goes from producer to consumer.
Vásquez explained that they were paid $9,000 for each kilo of cocaine and that at least two pairs of drivers, also called capis or chauffeurs, are usually used. To avoid any disloyalty or betrayal, one pair of pilots flies outbound; another inbound.
Pilots – or couriers – are usually classified as either “right-handed” or “left-handed,” referring to the seat each occupies in the cabin. The payment to each pilot is $150,000 for the entire trip, plus a bonus of $35,000 when the deal is closed. Anything goes to avoid getting caught, including turning off the radar and bribing the authorities.
According to a narcotics officer involved in the operation, “criminal organizations often prefer to use US-registered aircraft because they believe they’ll be subject to less scrutiny by foreign authorities.” This was Sánchez’s strategy; he used a jet owned by an unnamed Delaware company. “After picking up the narcotics in the country of origin or neighboring countries, the organizations direct the planes to a trans-shipment point, commonly in Central America,” adds the officer.
Paraguayan authorities warn that there are growing indications of alliances between Paraguay and drug traffickers from Mexico, Colombia, Europe and Brazil, as Paraguay fits the bill as a strategic trans-shipment point.
Global cocaine production peaked at almost 2,000 tons in 2020, although air is not the most popular modus operandi for shifting the merchandise. In fact, 90% of the drug is moved by sea, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Much of the information pertaining to Sánchez’s case is classified. After landing in Connecticut, some 4,000 miles from where his plane crashed in 2016, Roni pleaded not guilty and stopped posting on social networks. Almonte Vázquez, meanwhile, has been sentenced to 12 years. Rupert de la Casas has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. If found guilty, Roni faces anything from 10 years to life behind bars.