These are the planes most used by drug traffickers in Mexico and Venezuela

The head of the operations area of the Integrated Air Surveillance System of Mexico (SIVA) has said that on average they detect three irregular flights a month on the southern border of that country which are linked to drug trafficking, mainly from Venezuela.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the AIRCOP project, a multiagency project between UNODC, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization, organized crime groups have long focused on accelerating the transportation of drugs and other illicit goods through the use of ships, containers or airplanes. Thus they have been able to ship even greater amounts of drugs throughout the world.

Small quantities of cocaine hydrochloride or amphetamines are normally transported via commercial flights by people called narco mules. These narco mules use suitcases with double-bottoms, stuffed clothing and shoes, as well as specially designed vests. The drugs can also be hidden in quite unusual objects such as wheelchairs, or most dangerously, in finger cots stored in the stomach or intestines. The aim is always to evade airport and X-ray inspections in order to deliver a few kilos.

Some slightly larger shipments, measuring in the few tens of kilos, are transported in cargo planes. They're often packed together with flowers or aromatic herbs, hidden in plastic jars of veterinary products or some other sophisticated form of camouflage, to avoid detection by anti-drug officials and trained dogs.

When we start talking about bulk drug shipments involving many hundreds of kilos or tons, the cartels have their proprietary planes, containers with false bottoms, fishing boats, speedboats, and even custom-made submarines.

At first, small Cessna models were the aircraft of choice, especially the Cessna 206 with its 645 kilogram payload and double side door which facilitate loading and unloading. Another popular chose was the Cessna 185 RG, with its 725 kilograms payload along with a retractable train and slightly greater speed. Even more significant are its ability to take off and land on short runways or on a simple stretch of road between 275 and 400 meters in length. The existence of easily installable kits which create expanded fuel capacity for greater autonomy offer additional advantages.

In delivering drugs from Mexico to the United States, adding to land routes and sophisticated tunnels in border cities, expedited transport by air was accomplished in most cases by low-altitude flights which landed in one of the deserts in New Mexico or Arizona at a previously agreed time and place — and then the plane would be set on fire. Alternatively, packages were ejected with radio beacons, which enabled men on the ground to locate them. The plane would then be directed towards the Pacific Ocean. Before reaching the ocean the pilots would jump into the void, equipped with parachutes.

A Cessna 206 Skywagon takes off.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán

To gain an appreciation of the magnitude of drug air trafficking, it is sufficient to look at the case of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who directed the largest air operation in Mexico before being captured for the second time on February 22, 2014.

According to information received from the Mexican Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA), Mexican authorities between 2006 and 2015 confiscated 599 aircraft, of which 586 were airplanes and 13 were helicopters, which the Sinaloa Cartel used to use to send drugs to the United States and all of Mexico. By way of comparison, the country's largest legitimate commercial airline, Aeroméxico, has 127 aircraft.

Guzmán's cartel operated some 4,771 clandestine airstrips between 500 and 1,000 meters in length, in Mexico's northern states.

In the first three years of the mandate of former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012 to 2015), the army confiscated 55 planes and closed 894 airstrips. Of the planes captured in Culiacán, Navolato and Ahome, which are municipalities in the state of Sinaloa, 60 of them were none other than the Cessna 206.

These small, low-maintenance gasoline-engine planes, which a large majority of pilots know how to fly, were also used by drug cartels in South America to transport drugs from Bolivia and Colombia to Venezuela. The contraband would then be brought to Central America, mainly Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, or to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan peninsula or to Chiapas in southernmost Mexico.

For flights covering greater distances and carrying larger volumes of drugs, capable of reaching northern Mexican states like Sonora, Chihuahua, Baja California and Tabasco and ending up in border cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, they began to use higher capacity twin-turboprop aircraft from the Beechcraft King Air family — mostly the 90, 100, 200 and 300 series. These planes can land on clandestine runways in the deserts of Sonora or Chihuahua, at makeshift airports or in cultivated alfalfa fields.

By the end of the 90s, the theft of some 150 King 200 and King 300 series aircraft had been reported. Those thefts took place mostly in countries like the United States, the Bahamas, Brazil and Venezuela. The stolen aircraft were infiltrated to Colombia through the area of the eastern plains, to be painted and provided with new initials and identification in Colombia's Putumayo region.

Beech Super King Air 350 landing and takeoff.

Recent cases

In Venezuela, on March 2 of this year, a King 200 with American registration number N-54TS, whose last known destination had been Toluca in Mexico, was located and confiscated in the Venezuelan state of Falcón. It had been operated in connection with Mexican cartels and was loaded with plastic drums — the kind used to transport chemicals used to make cocaine hydrochloride.

Although the remains of a Gulfstream that crashed in the Yucatan Peninsula with 3.3 metric tons of cocaine on board have been found after September 24, 2007, the cartels have more recently been modifying their modes of operation. Aircraft used earlier, mostly turboprop, are being replaced. The cartels are currently using mostly jet aircraft, which reach greater speeds and have more space for cargo.

On January 26, 2020, the illegal entry into Mexican airspace from South America of a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air model 90 with forged initials N-2204 was detected. Ground reaction forces were immediately dispatched. They managed to locate the landing site in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Some 26 packages with a total weight of approximately one ton containing a substance with the properties of cocaine hydrochloride were seized.

On January 28, 2020, the Mexican National Defense Secretariat intercepted a Gulfstream III aircraft with the American initials N-18ZL. It was discovered to have been loaded with one ton of cocaine. Gulfstream aircraft are one of the most sophisticated and expensive executive jet aircraft on the market.

The Gulfstream III had taken off from Salta in Argentina and its final destination was the Mexican island of Cozumel. Upon being detected by intercept aircraft of the Mexican Air Force, they decided to land in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

Similarly, on January 29, three Mexicans who were trying to depart from Bogotá, Colombia were arrested. They were bound for Tapachula, Mexico, and were carrying three suitcases containing 164.5 kilos of cocaine and 1.9 kilos of a synthetic drug of pinkish color, known as pink cocaine, on a chartered Hawker 700A jet. They were detained before boarding the rented plane.

The head of the operations area of the Comprehensive Air Surveillance System of Mexico (SIVA) reported that on average they detect three irregular flights per month, on the southern border of Mexico which are linked with drug trafficking, mainly from Venezuela.

Organized crime groups conduct air drug deliveries almost exclusively at night. That sometimes complicates the detection, interception and tracking of the suspect aircraft, because it is more difficult to maintain visual contact with the objective at night. Night vision technology must be used to compensate for the limitations of human vision. According to information received from SEDENA, criminal groups need only five to ten minutes to completely unload a drug aircraft after it manages to enter and land on a clandestine runway in Mexican territory, along its southern border.

The value of the transported drugs is of such magnitude that discarding the plane, either by burning it or simply abandoning it, is of the least worry to the cartels — especially when it has been stolen or stolen.

The above is based on a report published on April 3 by Al Navio, which is based in Spain.

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