Four Frenchmen are standing trial in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, charged with attempting to smuggle 700 kilos of cocaine out of the country on a private jet.
Dominican officials discovered the drugs, hidden in 26 suitcases, in Punta Cana airport on March 20, 2013. Since their arrest, the two pilots, one crew member, and one passenger have spent 15 months in jail. They were released in June 2014, but prohibited from leaving the country pending their trial.
The plane, a Dassault Falcon 50 corporate jet, belongs to French businessman Alain Afflelou, the owner of a chain of stores that specialize in optical services and eyewear. It was due to land in a small airport close to Saint-Tropez, in southern France.
According to Le Parisien, around 20 Dominican customs and police officers are also implicated in the case, which has been dubbed "Air Cocaine" by the French media.
The two pilots, former French military members Pascal Fauret and Bruno Odos, have denied from the start having any knowledge of their illegal cargo. At the time of their arrest, the plane was under charter to SN-THS, a private jet rental company based in southeast France, with typical hourly rates of $6,250.
The other two people on board were Alain Castany, a crew member, and Nicolas Pisapia, a passenger.
Speaking to France 2 in February 2014, Fauret maintained that he wasn't in a position to check the contents of his passengers' luggage. "If I open them," he said, "the client can lodge a complaint."
Jean Reinhart, the attorney representing the two pilots, told VICE News that, according to international law, commercial pilots are not responsible for their cargo, unless it can be proven they know they are transporting illegal goods. Reinhart maintains that his clients are innocent, and points out that a parallel investigation is underway in France.
In the wake of the "air cocaine" case, French television channel Canal+ produced an investigative documentary on the ease of smuggling illegal goods through France. The film, which was broadcast in September, highlights the weaknesses and shortcomings of private aircraft control systems. The reporters took off from a French airfield with a suitcase filled with counterfeit bills, and landed in Guernsey, a British tax haven off the coast of northern France. The journalists were filmed marching their luggage through deserted customs offices. They also demonstrated how a private jet could be used to smuggle migrants between France and the UK.
Nicolas Barraud, head of communications for French customs, explained to VICE News why customs officers are all but invisible in the country's smaller airports. "Just because some journalists passed through once, it doesn't mean there are no controls," he said. "In smaller airports, monitoring is not carried out by uniformed customs officers, but by intelligence officers."
Barraud also pointed out that certain flights, such as flights from South America or the Caribbean, often raise a red flag, and are more often subject to checks. He said customs officers rely overwhelmingly on intelligence provided by informants, whose fees are proportionate to the size of the sting.
According to Barraud, private jets account for only a small share of aerial drug trafficking. "The bulk of seizures [by customs officers] is done on drug mules traveling on commercial flights," he said. "In 90 percent of cases, it's people who are paid 600 euros [$750] to transport around one kilo of cocaine in the form of capsules they've swallowed."
Drug mules are less risky and less costly than chartering a private aircraft, Barraud said. "When the traffic is constant and spread out over time, there are fewer risks," he explained. "Otherwise, all it takes is for one of the traffickers to be speaking to the intelligence services, and they [the traffickers] lose everything."
The level of preparation involved in chartering a plane for a transatlantic flight makes traffickers highly conspicuous to monitoring bodies. "In the Caribbean, traffickers tend to invest in small aircraft," Barraud said. "But chartering an aircraft with the capacity to cross the Atlantic, that's a whole other level of organization."
Barraud added that traffickers often subcontract the carriage of drugs to wealthy people to cover up their tracks in case of an arrest.
Follow Virgile Dall'Armellina on Twitter @armellina
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