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Flight to Madrid carrying half a ton of cocaine exposes network of collusion between government and drug traffickers in Bolivia

The discovery of 484 kg of drugs on a plane at Barajas airport has prompted the La Paz government to acknowledge that drug trafficking has ‘permeated’ its institutions

Flight to Madrid carrying half a ton of cocaine exposes
A customs official during the inspection of the seized drugs at Madrid's Barajas airport.Agencia Tributaria (EFE)

On Tuesday, the Bolivian government acknowledged that drug trafficking “has permeated” police, customs, airports and the state-owned airline, Boliviana de Aviación (BoA). Last week, it was revealed that members of these institutions allowed 484 kilograms of cocaine to be transported to Madrid on a commercial flight on February 12 and, subsequently, prevented the incident from being detected by internal security mechanisms. It is believed that the beneficiary of this network of collusion within the State was an international drug trafficking organization with links to Bolivia and Spain.

The three ministers in charge of the state agencies concerned in the “narco-flight” affair appeared before the press Tuesday to try to quell the barrage of criticism that had begun a few days earlier. The country had spent almost a week talking about a BoA flight last February on which half a ton of drugs had been discovered. The aircraft of the country’s leading commercial airline was parked at Madrid’s Adolfo Suarez airport. Two former presidents who lead the opposition from opposing sides, Evo Morales and Carlos Mesa, blamed Luis Arce’s government over the affair. “The protection of drug trafficking by Arce’s ministers is clearly proven,” tweeted Morales, who had elevated Arce to the presidency and whom he now accuses of leading the “internal right” of his party. Mesa demanded the intervention of the entities involved: “The enormous cocaine shipment transported with BoA shows the penetration of drug trafficking in the governments [of the Movement for Socialism, Morales and Arce’s party], and institutional and political complicity,” he wrote.

President Arce had also expressed his concern and ordered a thorough investigation into the case. His ministers convened a press conference and announced the suspension of one BoA official and another from the Viru Viru airport, located in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the location from which the drug shipment departed, as well as the rotation of all police officers stationed at the airport. According to the ministers, the Prosecutor’s Office will be provided with all the information it might require. Nevertheless, it was discovered that some of the images from the airport security cameras had been erased beforehand with the aim of hindering the investigation.

In the images that were obtained, two BoA cargo handlers can be seen breaking the police seal on the container in which the cargo was stored for loading onto the plane and introducing the twelve boxes containing the drugs. These packages accompanied four other boxes containing clothing that had been shipped by a courier company. According to the cargo declaration, the weight of this shipment was supposed to be just over 100 kg, but BoA admitted to the shipment being nearly 500 kg overweight, with no observation. The cargo handlers and the owners of the courier company responsible for the shipment were arrested, all having a history of drug trafficking.

The episode began when Spanish authorities, who were involved in an operation to detect irregular behavior by employees at Barajas airport, discovered the drugs in the hold of an Airbus belonging to Wamos Air, which had operated BoA flight OB776 and landed in Madrid on February 12. According to a report obtained by the Bolivian newspaper El Deber, four days later, information was requested from the Bolivian police, without specifically stating that it was a drug trafficking investigation. The police unit coordinating security at Viru Viru airport was activated and requested the security images from the airport authorities, but the videos they provided were of no use to the investigation. The next day, following a fresh Spanish request, the Viru Viru police asked for images, this time from BoA, only to learn that those from the moment the plane was loaded had been erased. It was the same sroty with the images from the customs cameras, which were destroyed much later, on May 31, when the Bolivian authorities had only just learned of the drug seizure at the Madrid airport.

The airport police failed to take further action to investigate the case, allegedly because they were unaware that drug smuggling was involved. There is some controversy as to why anti-drug bosses did not act before the discovery of the haul was revealed to the public. The police officer in charge of security at Viru Viru on the day of the shipment was arrested. Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo, pledged further arrests would be made.

According to unconfirmed press reports, a criminal group that operates in Bolivia and Spain, allegedly run by a Bolivian drug trafficker nicknamed “Colla,” was behind the shipment. They also suspect that the “narco-flight” was preceded and followed by other identical operations, also concealed by the same network of employees at Bolivian institutions.

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