A plane taking off. Smugglers are resorting to commercial flights for their operations in the region Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa/Unsplash.

Smugglers are increasingly using commercial and cargo flights to transport illicit drugs, arms, and gold, according to a new analysis by InSight Crime.

Alerts for crime and corruption in Latin American airports surged by 147% between 2021 and 2023, as reported by risk intelligence firm Osprey Flight Solutions (OFS). These alerts, based on continuous real-time monitoring of aviation security events, highlight Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia as the primary countries involved.

OFS data shows that smugglers employ various tactics to traffic illicit goods via air routes. Methods include hiding goods in legal shipments, setting up legitimate export companies to conceal illegal shipments, and corrupting airport authorities to facilitate drug trafficking. The increase in alerts likely correlates with the resurgence of international flights after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

Brazil recorded the highest number of alerts, with 1,737 incidents from February 2021 to February 2024, mainly involving gold and drug trafficking. Illegal gold mining, which surged during former President Jair Bolsonaro's administration, and rising gold prices in 2021, contributed to this increase. Smugglers largely transport illegal gold from São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport to Dubai and the United States.

Cocaine trafficking routes within Brazil were also prominent, with alerts showing a connection from Manaus and São Paulo to Fortaleza, a key dispatch point for cocaine to Africa.

Mexico ranked second with 700 alerts, primarily for synthetic drug trafficking via domestic flights from Culiacán and Querétaro to US border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Traffickers favor air routes for their shorter shipping times and lower risk of interception.

Internationally, Mexico's synthetic drugs are trafficked to Hong Kong, a major East Asian drug hub, which saw a 32% rise in seizures in early 2024 compared to 2023. OFS also tracked synthetic drugs from Mexico to Australia via Hong Kong, indicating a growing use of air cargo for rapid drug transport.

Colombia placed third with 488 alerts, predominantly involving cocaine trafficking via air cargo. Main routes connect Bogotá to San Andrés, a Caribbean island, as well as flights to Belgium, France, the UK, and Australia. Colombia's record cocaine production has diversified smuggling methods, including through aviation. Alerts at Colombian airports rose by 275% from 2021 to 2023, with notable seizures in San Andrés.

San Andrés has become a significant hub for domestic drug transit, utilizing both air and maritime routes. In July 2023, Colombian police intercepted 1.5 tons of cocaine at the San Andrés airport, shipped from western Colombia with alleged assistance from airport workers.

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