Venezuela's main international airport, Maiquetia, has developed something of a bad reputation in recent years for its long lines, stranded passengers and dingy terminals. In July, there was a national outcry after airport authorities began charging travelers a clean air tax.

And now, something truly dirty is going on at Maquetia.

Cocaine is flowing through the airport in such large quantities that, apparently, the seizure April 16 of four suitcases stuffed with 168 kilos was not disclosed to the public by Venezuelan prosecutors or counter-narcotics police.

According to Venezuela's El Nacional, the drugs were found after a McDonnell-Douglas MD 80 operated by Laser airlines was forced to land five minutes after taking off for the Dominican Republic.

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The jet, with capacity for 153 passengers, was in fine working condition, but one of the wheels wouldn't retract after takeoff, forcing the pilot to circle back.

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It wasn't a technical problem: Some smuggling genius had jammed a coke-stuffed suitcase into the wheel well, according to the paper's sources. Among the seven suspects taken into custody was a lieutenant in Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guard, the agency in charge of airport security.

By South America standards, 168 kilos (370 pounds) isn't a mega bust, especially in light of last year's 1.3-ton seizure (worth $270 million) aboard an Air France flight after the plane landed in Paris.

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But it's still a huge load, and the possibility that traffickers are endangering travelers by shoving drugs into the landing gear of commercial aircraft seems like the kind of thing the public would want to know.

As El Nacional points out, it also raises questions about other seizures that never come to light, either because the embattled government of President Nicolas Maduro wants to bury the bad news, or protect corrupt officials involved in trafficking.

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Venezuela's anti-drug police no longer operate at the airport, and the Bolivarian National Guard that replaced them has a history of dipping into the drug business.

Several officials were arrested after the Air France bust, and others were taken into custody last year when a former secretary of Italy's ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was caught with 24 kilos of cocaine in her carry-on after landing in Rome.

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Venezuela doesn't manufacture the cocaine, but it has been coming through the border from Colombia for years, in part with the help of Venezuelan security forces, according to Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials.

Maps showing the flight patterns of suspected drug shipments (i.e. unidentified aircraft flying low at night) have documented a massive shift in recent years. The flights no longer primarily originate in Colombia. They now depart almost entirely from rural areas on the Venezuela side of the border. From there they fan out to drop points in Central America and the Caribbean.

The overloaded smugglers’ flights are notoriously dangerous and prone to accidents. Much safer, some smugglers now assume, if you can send the drugs in a commercial jet.

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