Venezuelan sniffer dogs foiled a drug run out of Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela this week. The dogs, along with their handlers from Venezuela’s Regional Anti-Drug Intelligence Unit, found the haul when inspecting a TAP Air Portugal cargo flight on Wednesday.
“Venezuelan police on Wednesday prevented the take-off of a TAP cargo plane, which was supposed to fly between Maiquetía (northern Caracas) and Lisbon, after detecting an undetermined amount of narcotic substances in the aircraft’s fuselage,” says a statement from Safe Communities Portugal, a non-profit crime prevention group. Simple Flying has established the haul was 124 bars of cocaine. The cocaine was found in the crew area of the Airbus.
TAP Air Portugal running regular cargo services to Venezuela
TAP Air Portugal currently operates regular freighter services between Simón Bolívar Airport (Maiquetia) outside Caracas to Lisbon. Safe Communities Portugal flagged the aircraft as an Airbus A330. TAP Air Portugal has 24 of these planes, 18 of which are currently in service.
Flight tracking website RadarBox.com shows CF-TUF, a TAP Air Portugal A330-900, departed Lisbon for Caracas on Tuesday, May 4, operating as TP9533. The flight landed later that day and was slated to depart on Wednesday. However, following the bust, that flight was canceled. The Safe Communities Portugal statement says:
“The local authorities are conducting investigations concerning products of a possible narcotic nature, which will have been found, in the cargo hold, during a mandatory civil aviation security control action under the responsibility of the Bolivarian National Guard.”
Aircraft released after suggestion of seizure
The temporary grounding led to some speculation online Venezuelan authorities would confiscate the TAP Airbus. The Venezuelan Government has previously held onto smaller Portuguese planes seized in other drug busts. But holding onto a commercial Airbus A330 may have proved a little ambitious. RadarBox.com shows CF-TUF was back in the air on Thursday.
There was no suggestion TAP Air Portugal’s crew were involved. Instead, the investigators focused on a sergeant of the Bolivarian National Guard. The unnamed sergeant “fled when the Venezuelan authorities decided to inspect the aircraft.” The inspection was part of a compulsory civil aviation security check. Reports indicate the crew and TAP Air Portugal were cooperating fully with the investigation.
Cocaine bust continues a long tradition at Simón Bolívar International Airport
Wednesday’s cocaine seizure puts the spotlight back on Venezuela’s biggest international airport. Simón Bolívar International Airport has an established track record as a cocaine export hub. Corruption and a need for hard currencies are key enablers of the trade.
But as this week’s bust indicates, efforts are made to stamp out the illicit trade. However, corrupt elements hinder those efforts. Most spectacularly, French authorities halted a massive 1.3-tonne cocaine importation on an Air France flight in 2013 tied to the Venezuelan military.
“Anyone who has witnessed the elaborate controls the National Guard keeps over every aspect of passenger and bag movements at Simón Bolívar, where woe be onto you if you try to leave the country with two packs of coffee in your bag as souvenirs, knows perfectly well you can’t get ghost bags onto a plane without them knowing about it,” one Venezuelan commentator said online at the time.
A former airline pilot noted that it was relatively unusual for crew areas to be inspected on flights like the TAP Air Portugal cargo service. There is also a suggestion the inspection was the result of information coming from international law enforcement agencies.