How cartels move tons of cocaine around the Americas and elude authorities for years

The plane left Tapachula, in the extreme south of Mexico, heading for the Dominican Republic. The crew had a local contact who had taken care of everything: receiving them, coordinating the landing, and paying a bribe of $150,000 dollars to the authorities of the airport of La Romana, a small city on the eastern end of the island. The bribe was crucial to getting a false flight plan, one of the key pieces of the plan. After the stopover in the Caribbean, the Hawker jet, registration number N483FG, headed for Brazil, the destination that its false itinerary specified, and from one moment to another it disappeared from the radar.

The plane flew low and made an abrupt turn to head towards Venezuela, where it was going to pick up 1,650 kilos of cocaine on a clandestine landing strip. From the Venezuelan savannah, almost on the border with Colombia, he was going to follow the air route to Honduras, where the buyer of the drug was located. If all went well, the powder was to be transported overland back to southern Mexico and ultimately transported to the United States. But nothing turned out as expected. The aircraft had a forced landing and crashed before picking up the drugs.

The accident not only frustrated the plan to crown millions of dollars in profits for those involved. It also jettisoned the covert operation to catch them: the tracking of the aircraft, the intercepted calls, the work of informants on the ground. The Mexican Ronier Sánchez and the rest of the crew survived the crash and disappeared without a trace. It was August 7, 2016. The US authorities published two separate search and seizure statements, opened the legal case against four defendants at the end of that year and issued a red Interpol file to corner Roni, as the narco -pilot is also known.

Sánchez managed to dodge the authorities until on Monday, March 22, 2021, he landed in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, in the heart of South America. Coming from Brazil, he went through Immigration as just another citizen and stayed in an aparthotel in one of the richest neighborhoods in the city. He had a return ticket to Brazil for Saturday, perhaps not knowing that that country and the DEA had already warned the Paraguayan Anti-Drug Secretariat (Senad) of his movements.

The pilot was arrested two days later, when several agents with rifles burst into the room where he slept. His handcuffed photo was sent to all news agencies. Even the Paraguayan president, Mario Abdo, announced his capture on his social networks: “one of the most wanted narco -pilots by the United States.”

The Paraguayan anti-drug agency said that the Mexican worked “for Mexican and Colombian cartels”, taking care of international traffic by air from cocaine production areas in South America to redistribution centers in Central America and the Caribbean, “controlled by Mexican cartels”. The US justice did not give details of which cartel or group he belonged to and Paraguayan security sources assure that “he did not give any information about it either.”

“Preliminary reports indicated that he was hiding in Suriname. Now, how did he appear in Paraguay? I don’t know anymore,” said the Paraguayan prosecutor for International Affairs, Manuel Doldán. The DEA located him in Brazil and in neighboring Paraguay, from where he planned to continue with the drug business. “He came to buy an aircraft in Paraguay for his organization,” Joel Torres, the person in charge of the extradition department of the Paraguayan Prosecutor’s Office says.

The moment of extradition and handover was calm and without risk of escape. Sánchez was escorted by the agents at the airport: with a bulletproof vest, a helmet and without blinking, as if he knew that his arrest would come one day. What was difficult and extensive was the process to extradite him, Torres recalls. Sánchez’s Paraguayan lawyers appealed the accusations claiming that the US had no jurisdiction in the case, which unnecessarily lengthened his extradition, according to Torres. Meanwhile, Sánchez spent almost a year and a half in preventive detention in the Specialized Group, a prison in Asunción with greater security than others, the same one in which Brazilian soccer player Ronaldinho was held shortly before. With a large security device, Sánchez was extradited on July 22 at the request of the United States.

Five years passed before Sánchez was caught in Paraguay, after assuming nine different identities, and another year before he was extradited from Asunción to the State of Connecticut, where he faces a trial for cocaine trafficking. In all the time that the persecution lasted across half a continent, Sánchez seemed undeterred. On Facebook and Instagram he posed with friends and family, boasted of trips to such iconic sites as the Egyptian pyramids, shared his political views and made no secret of his passion for airplanes. The most important thing: everything indicated that he was in Mexico and that he lived without any worries. At least, that was what social networks said about him.

In 2017, the year after the accident, Ronier Sánchez obtained his university degree as an aviator pilot after completing his studies abroad, according to the records of the Ministry of Public Education. On LinkedIn he calls himself Ronnier Sanz and says he has experience as a pilot for a parcel company, having been the first officer of Aeroméxico and founder of an aeronautical company based in Seattle (USA). He even had business cards as a director of the company. He spent a year and a half posting on Facebook from prison.

While Roni proudly accepted the compliments of friends and family, who admired his “successes” as an entrepreneur and his selfies, the case progressed in the United States. Carlos Almonte Vásquez, the drug crew’s Dominican contact, reached an agreement with the Prosecutor’s Office to admit his guilt in exchange for a reduced sentence. Almonte Vásquez was accused in New York of another matter of cocaine trafficking. Just three months after the plane crash in Venezuela, Almonte and another group tried to transport Colombian drugs from Ecuador, but were stopped in Haiti, the intermediate stop before reaching South America, in November of that year.

The pilot on that occasion was American Todd Macaluso, a lawyer known for amassing a large fortune in the injury claims business and who lost his license after being accused of defrauding his clients. After leaving prison, Macaluso set up a business as an air taxi driver, but since he was still on probation, he had to notify the police every time he traveled, especially outside the United States. He boasted of having a lot of experience flying to Mexico and even claimed before a US court that he worked as a pilot for the Kardashian family “for years.”

After going bankrupt as a private aviator, a friend of Macaluso’s arranged a meeting with Mexican drug traffickers at a seafood restaurant in Tijuana. A couple of days after meeting them, he took a flight to Orlando (Florida) and then took command of an old plane to go to Haiti, a stopover in his criminal journey, along with Almonte Vásquez and others involved.

After picking up the drugs in Ecuador, the plan was to take 1.5 tons of cocaine to Honduras, where Bayron El Negro was going to buy it. Ruiz, one of the most feared drug traffickers in the Central American country. The Honduran press has linked Ruiz as an operator of the Sinaloa cartel and later, of the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel, the two most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico. There are also suspicions of his collaboration with top-tier politicians in the country, which has become a springboard on transcontinental drug routes. El Negro, the person in charge of the merchandise crossing Central America and Mexico to finally reach the United States, was arrested in Guatemala in 2018, after presenting false identification to the authorities. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2021, after pleading guilty to drug trafficking.

In that second case, Almonte Vásquez exposed the modus operandi of drug transfer. The recruits to bring each shipment to fruition are a kind of freelancers or autonomous workers: pilots in desperate circumstances like Macaluso, co-pilots without commitments to any specific cartel like Roni, bodyguards, and corrupt authorities. The international cocaine business has become a game of intermediaries, almost all of them specialized in a single link in the long chain of drug trafficking: from production to arrival at the final consumer.

The Dominican explained that they were going to pay them $9,000 for each kilo of cocaine and that they used to use at least two pairs of pilots, also called capis or chauffeurs. To avoid denunciations and betrayals, a couple of pilots fly one way; another back. Couriers are usually classified as “right-handed” and “left-handed”, referring to the seat each one occupies in the cabin. The payment to each of the capis was $150,000 for the entire trip, plus a $35,000 bonus when the deal was closed. Anything goes to avoid being caught: turn off the radar, bribe the authorities.

An anti-narcotics agent who participated in the operation also shared his notes on how drug trafficking works. “Criminal organizations often prefer to use US-registered aircraft in the belief that they will be subject to less scrutiny by foreign authorities,” he noted. It was the same strategy as in the Sánchez case, where a jet owned by a Delaware company was used, where the names of the owners are not public. “After picking up the narcotics in the country of origin or nearby, the organizations direct the planes to a transshipment point, usually in Central America,” she adds.

Paraguayan authorities warn that there are increasing signs of alliances between drug traffickers from Mexico, Colombia, Europe and Brazil, with Paraguay as a “strategic” territory for the transport of cocaine. In addition, this country is the largest producer of illegal marijuana in South America. The world production of cocaine reached a peak of almost 2,000 tons in 2020, although the air route is not the most frequent option: 90% of the drug moves by sea, according to the latest report from the United Nations office against Drug and Crime.

In the case of Sánchez, the bulk of the information has been classified in the judicial summary. After landing in Connecticut, some 2,500 miles from where the plane he was piloting crashed in 2016, Roni pleaded not guilty and stopped posting on social media. Almonte Vázquez was sentenced to 12 years. Rupert de las Casas, the other pilot of the aircraft, has already confessed and awaits his sentence. If found guilty, the 46-year-old Mexican narco -pilot faces sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison.

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