NEW YORK — Federal investigators are piecing together details of an audacious new trend in drug smuggling: South American gangs are buying old jets, stuffing them full of cocaine and flying them across the Atlantic to feed Europe's growing coke habit.
At least three gangs have struck deals to fly drugs to West Africa and from there to Europe, according to U.S. indictments. One trafficker claimed he already had six aircraft flying. Another said he was managing five airplanes. Because there is no radar coverage over the ocean, big planes can cross the Atlantic virtually undetected.
"The sky's the limit," one Sierra Leone trafficker boasted to a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, according to court documents.
The new air route is remarkable because of the distances involved and the complexity of flying big jets, said Scott Decker, a criminology professor at Arizona State University who studies smuggling methods. A trip from Venezuela to West Africa is about 3,400 miles (5,500 kilometers) — about triple the distance to Florida.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime began warning about trans-Atlantic drug planes after Nov. 2, 2009, when a burned-out Boeing 727 was found in the desert in Mali. Drug smugglers had flown the jet from Venezuela, unloaded it and then torched the aircraft, investigators said.
In some cases, executive jets have been used, including a Gulfstream II that landed in Guinea-Bissau in 2008 and another Gulfstream seized in 2007 as it tried to depart Venezuela for Sierra Leone.