Flying High with Cocaine


The confusing knot that is the modern illegal drug economy often gives us some surprising news. In this case, it’s Russian pilots flying planeloads of cocaine. Read that again – planeloads. No passengers, no baggage, just a plane stuffed to capacity with white powder.

A story reported in the Moscow Times lays out the scheme. Drug cartels, hard-pressed to get their product to European markets, purchase old airplanes and load them with cocaine in South America. The flights then jump the Atlantic to Africa where the cargo is unloaded and smuggled overland and by boat into Europe. And these aren’t the little puddle-jumper propeller planes you might be thinking of. These are real commercial jets – Boeing 727s and the like.

Why this method? It seems like a lot of trouble and expense. The reason is simple – with strong enforcement for traditional cocaine smuggling routes, the cartels did the math and found it cheaper to buy, fly and then abandon (sometimes even burn) an entire jet to avoid the authorities. There’s little to no radar coverage for the entire trip to Africa. They can land on a remote airstrip or bribe their way into an airport. The bulk shipment is then divided up into smaller lots and spread out between whatever type of transportation will get it into Southern Europe – boat, truck or ‘mule’.

The fuel for this effort is the same as always. Money. With the growers in Columbia selling cocaine paste at about $1,000 a kilo (2.2lbs) and the final, delivered product selling at 60 times as much, the profits are huge. It’s this that pays the cost of all the “toys” drug smugglers use to ship drugs. We’ve seen cigarette boats, submarines, 18-wheelers… and now commercial jets.

And all the arguments remain the same:
• If there wasn’t such a great demand, the suppliers couldn’t charge what they charge.
• If they couldn’t charge what they charge, they wouldn’t be able to afford to smuggle it.
• But if the drugs weren’t so prevalent, there would be fewer users and less demand.
• If we arrest more users, we could lower demand.
• If we could get Columbian farmers to quit growing it, the supply would dry up.

And around and around it goes.

The only solution I’ve seen that actually works is an addict who receives treatment and stops using. That, at least, is one personal victory in the war on drugs. The war continues, but for that one person, the battles are over and the victor is clear. This is one of the few really satisfying outcomes – when one person, just one, turns their life around and leaves the war without becoming a permanent casualty.


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