47 Sacks of Coke A Charter Pilot's Run-In with Venezuelan Drug Lords
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.
The airport is closed overnight and no planes may take-off or land between midnight and 6 a.m. Lückert tries to reach the tower nonetheless, but nobody answers. The runway is only provisionally lit and the crew has no idea how heavy their load is. When fully fueled, the plane can take on 2.2 tons of cargo. If the sacks are heavier than that, the runway may be too short. But do they have a choice?
Lückert hits the gas, and at 2:26 a.m., the Bombardier takes off. The cargo seems to be well-balanced. The drug dealers apparently knew how many sacks the plane could carry.
The Enemy Within
The plane is in the air for barely 10 minutes before a call comes in on the sat-phone. The voice, in English, says the plane should keep flying so that nothing happens to the crew "or to your families back home." It is a threat to be taken seriously. The drug dealers let it be known that, in addition to the sat-phone number, they also know the crew's passport details, their countries of origin and their addresses. In addition, the stewardess spoke about her private life with Ryma Taouk.
Chaos reigns at company headquarters in Switzerland. They recall the story of the Air Luxor flight that was stuffed with drugs in Caracas in 2004. The plane was impounded and the co-pilot spent years in a Venezuelan jail. It is a horror scenario for CEO Weisskopf, who is also concerned about losing the plane, which is owned by a German businessman.
The company trusts Lückert "99 percent." But there is still that 1 percent of doubt that perhaps the crew really could be part of the plot. Saturday has now turned to Sunday and Weisskopf is unable to reach anyone at the Zürich airport who might be able to help. Using Google, he finds the Interpol number in Lyon. An officer answers and thanks Weisskopf for the information. But he doesn't call back for hours.
In the cockpit of the Global Express, the telephone keeps ringing and the voice wants to know the plane's exact position. At first, the crew is concerned that the plane's position is also being monitored from the ground.
Still, nobody knows what the white sacks contain. The zippers are secured with cable ties and the crew is afraid to open them. What if there is a bomb hidden in them? Furthermore, they are worried that if there are explosives on board, they might be outfitted with GPS trackers and programmed to go off if the plane leaves the flight route they have been ordered to follow.
With Interpol still not responding, Ryma Taouk calls the satellite phone. She apologizes, says things didn't go as planned and once again says she's sorry. Lückert loses it and he yells at her through the phone, accusing her of ruining the lives of the crew. The pilot thinks of his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter at home. The crew is afraid that they could be killed when they land in six hours. Taouk tells Lückert that they should just continue on to Benin as they have been ordered and that she will arrange for a fuel truck to be waiting. As soon as they unload their cargo, she says, the jet can continue on to Europe.
The crew doesn't believe a word she says and the pilots are considering skipping Africa altogether. But first, their families must be brought to safety. The crew calls their homes and Lückert tells his girlfriend she should grab their daughter and go into hiding.
Finally, Interpol calls company headquarters in Switzerland. The investigators have made inquiries in Venezuela and were told that the airplane was reported as stolen. Interpol also warns against landing in Benin, saying that it would be difficult to get either the plane or the crew out of the country. Finally, police officers are sent to protect the families of the crew members.
It is time for a Plan B. At company headquarters, experts are busy calculating how far the jet can fly with the fuel in its tanks. Of all European destinations, the island of Gran Canaria is the closest. Interpol agrees to a landing in the Canaries, promising the crew witness protection measures.
Lückert changes course and switches off the transponder transmitting location information. From now on, the plane is essentially invisible. The pilot also climbs to an altitude of 14,000 meters (46,000 feet) to clear out of the airspace generally used by passenger jets. When the drug dealers call on the phone to inquire about their location, the crew gives them coordinates from the originally planned route to Africa.
The voice on the phone tells the pilot to change course for Burkina Faso and names a number of possible airports, most of them belonging to the military. But the Global Express can't land everywhere. It has a wing-span of 30 meters and needs at runway of at least 800 meters in length to land safely and 1.8 kilometers to take off. Plus, the runway must be able to withstand 45 tons.
Once again, Lückert goes through a variety of different options with his boss, Weisskopf. What about, for example, simply dumping the freight over the Atlantic? To do so, Lückert believes, the plane would have to fly at an extremely low altitude over the ocean -- and the extra kerosene needed for the maneuver may make Gran Canaria unreachable. Plus, one of the two pilots would have to open the cargo door to the inside, but because it is so close to the engines, a strong suction would develop. The risk is significant that the maneuver could cost someone's life. Plus, what would happen upon arrival in Las Palmas? When the police didn't find any sacks on board, they might accuse the crew of having deposited it somewhere.
During the approach to Gran Canaria, the co-pilot switches off the satellite phone. When the plane touches down, there are still 45 minutes until its planned landing in Africa.
The Spanish authorities in Las Palmas, having been informed by Interpol, are waiting for the jet with a large police contingent. Masked officers from the Grupos Operativos Especiales de Seguridad storm the plane and lead the crew away. The pilot, co-pilot and stewardess have been awake for hours and managed to deceive the drug dealers, but their odyssey is by no means over. First, they are taken to cells at the airport and then transferred to police headquarters in Las Palmas.
A Rubber Pad to Sleep On
Slowly, the crew begins to realize that things aren't proceeding optimally here either. The co-pilot understands a bit of Spanish and hears the police say: "We'll give the small one three or four beers and he'll sing like a canary." The crew members are seen as suspects, and they are locked away in solitary confinement cells in the basement, each measuring two by three meters. At the front, bars stretch from the floor to the ceiling and there is no daylight and no toilet. It is 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the basement; each receives a rubber pad to sleep on.
The Spanish are proud of having landed a big fish. Newspapers print images of the plane with the cocaine-filled sacks piled in front of it. The island paper Canarian Weekly describes the operation as "one of the most important anti-drug operations in the Canary Islands in recent years." Spain is in the middle of the economic crisis and budgets have been cut everywhere. The police, too, must lay people off. A spectacular coup such as this one is like manna from heaven for the Las Palmas force.
To this day, Eric Weisskopf can't understand what happened next. All promises made by his contact-person at Interpol were broken and the victims were transformed into potential perpetrators. Furthermore, the court-appointed defense attorney assigned to the crew can do little at first, being told that the files relating to the incident are classified. For four weeks, nothing happens. The judge responsible for such cases is on maternity leave and her replacement takes no action.
Eight weeks after the crew landed in Las Palmas, the crew is still behind bars and the airplane is still stuck in Spain. The company is losing tens of thousands of euros a day and the jet's owner is beginning to get upset.
In Prison with Child Molesters
Back in Venezuela, Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami treats himself to a moment in the spotlight. He says at a press conference called to discuss the case that law enforcement officials assumed the plane had been hi-jacked. Officials then informed the United Nations and launched an immediate investigation. That led to the plane's being captured in the Canary Islands, El Aissami says. The minister declines to mention that the crew turned themselves in. Everything seems to be going against Lückert and his crew.
In the interim, the Spanish police have weighed and examined the 47 sacks stuffed aboard the Bombardier: 1,588 kilograms (3,501 pounds) of cocaine. But otherwise, the investigation turns into a farce. The cockpit voice recorder, which almost certainly could have provided valuable evidence, is only removed from the airplane weeks later. During that period, however, the police have repeatedly boarded the plane and switched on the aircraft's backup generator -- which causes the recorder to continue functioning. The recordings made during the trans-Atlantic flight are thus recorded over and once the Spanish authorities get around to listening to the voice recorder, they can hear only their own voices. Germany's federal police force is likewise conducting its own investigation and delivers evidence to the Canaries which exonerates the crew.
Several Venezuelans are likewise behind bars in the prison where the crew is being held and they are concerned that the drug dealers could use the inmates to exact revenge. Lückert is in a cell with Spain's most dangerous child molester and he speaks with murderers and drug couriers while locked away. Local officials also refuse to allow Lückert's girlfriend visiting rights. She has flown in from Germany but, without a marriage certificate, a visit is impossible, she is told.
In October, there is finally progress when Karl Lückert is taken to the prison director. His parents have managed to come up with the €60,000 bail set by the court for Lückert and the crew. They are released, but still not allowed to leave the country. The aircraft is returned to its owner.
At the same time, a woman turns herself in to local police in Beirut. She identifies herself as Ryma Taouk and says that she had been hired to be a passenger on the flight and had been promised €30,000. She was told that the flight would be carrying an illegal cargo, but nothing was said about drugs, she claims.
The man who allegedly hired her for the job is well-known among international law enforcement officials. His name is Ali Kleilat and is considered one of the biggest fish in the international drug and weapons trade. He has at least six different aliases and his year of birth is sometimes noted as 1970, sometimes 1963. He has passports from Liberia, the Netherlands, Venezuela and Lebanon.
A New Identity
There is even a United Nations Security Council report about Kleilat, focusing on a 2003 weapons delivery to Liberia. According to the report, one of Kleilat's companies was involved in flying in 300 Kalashnikovs and 700,000 rounds of munition for the regime of Charles Taylor. Investigators believe that Kleilat has been involved in many other arms deals as well.
German authorities also have Kleilat on their radar. He has, they say, "several times been the target of international investigative bodies on suspicion of participating in the international drug and weapons trade." In 2011 in the Dominican Republic, for example, an airplane carrying 1.1 tons of cocaine was intercepted. Investigations by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) found that Kleilat was likely involved and they launched an international manhunt. In February, it was successful: Kleilat was arrested in Brussels.
Currently, Kleilat is being held in a high-security facility and he is escorted to court hearings by six officers wearing bullet proof vests. The Belgian judiciary has ruled that Kleilat can be extradited to the US, though a final decision is still pending in the country's Justice Ministry.
His accomplices at the Arturo Michelena International Airport were likewise identified and arrested. In total, 18 people were locked up, including nine members of the Bolivarian National Guard, two men from the civilian air traffic authority, a secret service agent and an air-traffic controller. All of them received hush money, ranging from €19,000, for the officer on duty at the main entrance to the AeroClub at the airport, to €188,000 for a National Guard officer. A criminal named Efraín Pereda is thought to be the middleman between the local gang and the Colombian drug cartels.
It took months before the crew was allowed to return to Germany and almost a full year before the Spanish authorities closed the criminal case against Lückert and his crew. Police have provided Lückert with a new identity and he now lives with his family in a different city. "Nothing is like it used to be," he says bitterly.
The only thing that hasn't changed is his occupation. He is once again flying private clients around the globe. "But I am more suspicious of my passengers than I used to be," Lückert says. And he no longer flies to Venezuela or Lebanon. German authorities have advised him against it.
*Name has been changed by the editors.