47 Sacks of Coke: A Charter Pilot's Run-In with Venezuelan Drug Lords
It started as a routine charter flight. But when the business jet landed in Venezuela, armed men loaded 47 sacks of cocaine on board and forced the crew to fly the cargo back across the Atlantic. Since then, the German pilot has been living under an assumed identity.
There aren't too many places that offer better protection against criminality than an international airport. With all the video cameras, security personnel and scanners, there isn't much room for malfeasance. Furthermore, every passenger is registered, every pilot is scanned and every cleaning lady has undergone a security check.
The airport in Valencia, Venezuela's third largest city, is also patrolled by Commando 24 of the Bolivarian National Guard. Passengers are united in their hatred for the unit, with complaints rampant on Internet forums. Some passengers report having been searched up to three times before boarding their flights. The Venezuelan secret service also has agents posted at the city's airport, Arturo Michelena International.
Karl Lückert* can only smile wryly at the massive security effort. He once landed in Valencia as the pilot of a private jet of the kind often booked by CEOs, stars and the wealthy. In August 2012, he touched down at Arturo Michelena for what he thought would be a routine, and brief, stopover. But things turned out differently. So differently that, in subsequent days, he found himself confronted with the choice between losing his life or acting as a drug courier. Indeed, as a consequence of that layover, he was forced to burn all bridges to the life he had led to that point and take on a new identity. Now, over two years later, the man who forced Lückert into the drug trade may soon be facing trafficking charges in a US court.
During that night in August two years ago, National Guard troops suddenly appeared on the airfield next to Lückert's plane; the pilot recalls staring down the barrels of their machine guns. He yelled: "No! No baggage!" But he then had to watch as the military unit ignored him and loaded 47 white plastic bags from an SUV into his jet. They were filled with cocaine. His co-pilot was threatened with death. And Lückert was forced to realize that airport security can be relative.
Of Beauty and Secrets
Karl Lückert likes to describe his job as a chauffeur service. His plane, a snow-white Bombardier Global Express, can fly up to 11,390 kilometers (7,080 miles) nonstop. The business jet can be configured for up to 19 passengers and costs 30 million. "I am a taxi driver, just in the air," he says.
Generally, such private planes are rented via special agencies in a web-based marketplace, with routes such as Moscow-Nice being among the most popular. But in 2012, the Swiss charter company that employs Lückert won the international bidding war for a job tendered by Princess Aviation, a company based in Beirut. The three-day journey was to go from Morocco to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, heading off to Venezuela before returning to Benin, in Africa. The price agreed to was 186,000.
The odyssey -- reconstructed with the help of interrogation records, investigation results from Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), the Lebanese and Venezuelan police and with the pilot's own recollections -- begins on Aug. 10, 2012 in Casablanca with but a single passenger on board: Ryma Taouk. Lückert describes Taouk, who was 37 at the time, as an "eye catcher," saying she was very open, quite friendly and fashionably dressed.
Taouk has both Lebanese and Australian citizenship; images of her in the Internet show a woman with pinned-up hair wearing a white blouse. She presents herself as a prize-winning interior designer with offices in Beirut, Dubai and Sydney. Lückert Googled her prior to the flight, a common practice among private plane pilots so as to be able to make a bit of small talk en route.
As the Bombardier soars across the Atlantic, Taouk talks about what it's like to live in Beirut and to be part of the party scene there. In Venezuela, she says, her friend Eddy will come aboard. She gets along particularly well with the young stewardess on the trans-Atlantic portion of the journey.
The first friction only surfaces after the Global Express lands as planned on the island of Tobago. Ryma Taouk wants to spend the night in the Hilton, but the hotel is located on the neighboring island of Trinidad: Taouk apparently is unaware that Trinidad and Tobago are separated by water. Furthermore, she doesn't have an entry visa for the country. "Strange. Poorly organized," Lückert thinks to himself. But wealthy clients are not infrequently a bit helpless in the real world, so the pilot arranges for Taouk to stay in the Coco Reef Hotel, which sends a Rolls-Royce to pick her up.
The next day, the jet with the registration number 9H-FED departs Tobago at 9:55 p.m. local time, but the reason for Taouk's stop there remains unclear. During the 90 minute flight to Venezuela, she comes up to the cockpit and makes a call on the sat-phone, speaking in Arabic. The mood is good and the landing is smooth.
Taouk heads for the hotel while Lückert has the jet refueled, noticing with surprise the number of people in uniform standing around. After 20,000 liters of kerosene have been pumped into the Bombardier's tanks, Lückert steers the jet into its parking spot for the night. Ground personnel ask him to turn the plane 180 degrees, an unusual request.
Only much later would the pilot understand the reason for the demand. The maneuver means that the plane's cargo door is now no longer illuminated by airport lights nor can it be seen by surveillance cameras.
An airport worker hands Lückert a mobile phone and the voice on the other end tells him in broken English that he should just leave the plane open during the night and head to a hotel with his crew. A chauffeur, the voice says, is waiting.
But Lückert declines. Leaving an airplane unlocked, after all, is a violation of security protocols and the crew doesn't want to sleep in a hotel. After all, their itinerary calls for a 6 a.m. departure for Africa the next morning and pulling down beds in the plane takes little time at all. Bedding down on board gives the crew a few extra minutes of sleep. Not long later, Ryma Taouk calls and tries to convince the crew to sleep in a hotel. "We were all slightly annoyed by that degree of thoughtfulness," Lückert recalls.
'We Were Completely Helpless'
The crew climbs into their beds for the night. But they don't sleep for long. At around 2 a.m., there is a knock at the door and, once again, there is a man standing there with a mobile phone. Luggage is to show up shortly, explains the voice on the other end. "No! No!" Lückert yells into the phone.
Everything goes quickly after that. Two, dark-colored off-road vehicles appear and armed men open the plane's cargo door. "Stop!" Lückert yells, only then noticing the figure in green camouflage with a pistol strapped to his leg coming into the passenger cabin from the cargo bay. "It wasn't the kind of person you could talk to," Lückert remembers.
The plane was quickly filled with white sacks made of woven plastic, each printed with a red cross. "It was like an avalanche. We were completely helpless," Lückert says.
It takes about 20 minutes for the luxury liner to be filled with the sacks; there are 47 of them, lying in the aisle, on the seats and in the cargo bay. Six to eight armed men are standing in front of the jet. It becomes clear to the crew that they can't expect anyone to come to their assistance -- that everyone is in on the operation. "The entire airport must have been involved," Lückert says. "Calling the local police was not an option."
As quickly as the SUVs appeared, they vanish again into the night. Lückert calls Eric Weisskopf, the charter company's CEO, in Switzerland. "Eric, things have gotten completely out of control," Lückert tells him. Again, there is a knock at the door and Lückert sends his co-pilot to answer. He is completely pale when he returns. If they take off now, they will be killed, is the message he was given. Lückert takes a look out a rear window and sees that troops armed with machine guns are standing under the wings. Only the plane's thin metal skin separates them from 20,000 liters of kerosene. "It was built to fly, not as a tank," Lückert whispers to his co-pilot.
"We hoped that someone would show up with a camera and say, 'Welcome to Candid Camera,'" Lückert remembers. For a moment Lückert considers trying to throw the bags out of the aircraft on the runway shortly before take-off. But he reconsiders, assuming they would be caught.
- Part 1: A Charter Pilot's Run-In with Venezuelan Drug Lords
- Part 2: Trans-Atlantic Escape
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