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Ukraine Supplying Planes to Colombia Drug Traffickers

Narcotics: As many as 20 Antonov-32Bs, a Soviet-designed military cargo craft, may be running illicit missions. U.S. has warned Kiev against the deals.

February 20, 1996|WILLIAM C. REMPEL and CRAIG PYES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian government, through its state-owned aircraft factory here, is engaged in a series of business deals with the Colombian cocaine cartels, selling and leasing a small fleet of Soviet-designed military cargo planes to drug traffickers, The Times has learned.

The Antonov-32Bs, twin-engine turboprops regarded by U.S. anti-drug officials as "the ultimate smugglers' plane," have been employed along traditional drug routes from Colombia, Peru, Panama and Mexico, according to U.S. and Colombian law enforcement sources and former partners in the Ukrainian aircraft ventures.

The Antonov aviation factory, which operates under the authority of Ukraine's Ministry of Machine Building and Defense Conversion, retains legal ownership of at least six of about a dozen Antonovs known to be operating in Colombia. As a result, the now-ailing state-owned factory stands to profit from what appear to be continuing business arrangements with traffickers.

"It would be like [in the U.S.] NASA selling rockets to drug lords," said an American source familiar with the Ukrainian transactions.

The United States has privately warned Ukraine that drug runners are acquiring its planes and has urged Kiev to "be very careful whom you sell them to," a senior Clinton administration official in Washington said. Equipping drug traffickers with planes that increase their capacity for delivering cocaine to U.S. markets is a threat to U.S. national security interests, the official said.

Despite the warnings, however, American sources say there are few signs of official action by Ukraine to reverse the deals. In fact, at least six new sales were still pending last month, a Colombian aircraft broker involved in the transactions said in an interview.

The planes are flown by experienced Ukrainian and Russian pilots who also assist in training local flight crews.

U.S. officials say they are unsure how many Antonovs are actually operating in Colombia either in legitimate or illicit trades. Colombian aviation records reviewed by The Times show nine are registered, but Colombian national police say they have spotted at least 12. Canadian authorities documented the transit of 20 Antonovs through their airports last year alone; all of those planes are now believed to be in Colombia, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. law enforcement officials believe the unaccounted-for Antonovs also ended up in the hands of traffickers.

Ukraine's military cargo planes first entered the civilian market in Panama with three sales in 1992. Those planes are now the subject of a criminal investigation by Ukraine's Security Service, which has linked the aircraft and Ukrainian pilots to alleged drug smuggling and money laundering between Panama and Colombia. Ukraine is trying to repossess those planes, alleging "unauthorized transfers of state property."

Interviews in Panama and Ukraine also show that those first Antonovs were owned, in part, by a company made up of Panamanian government officials responsible at that time for regulating civil aviation. Some were secret partners in the company, according to former business associates.

Drug Cartels' Reach

The Ukrainian state factory's links with drug-trafficking air cargo firms in Latin America--and the involvement of Panamanian officials--demonstrate not only the reach of wealthy international drug organizations into public offices around the globe, but the vulnerability of weak ex-Soviet economies to exploitation by organized crime.

Furthermore, the story behind the AN-32Bs' appearance in the drug trade reveals the constantly changing tactics and strategies of the cartels' covert transportation wing, which continues to operate despite a publicized string of high-level arrests and international law enforcement pressures.

A three-month Times investigation into the Antonov deals also found that:

* The Kiev Antonov factory is represented in Colombia by a Bogota-based leasing company run by a man who has been identified by the DEA as an intermediary in purchasing aircraft that went to traffickers.

* In the spring of 1993, Colombia's Cali drug cartel specifically asked about the plane's ability to make cocaine airdrops over Mexico, according to a Ukrainian businessman who says he met twice in Panama with a Colombian introduced to him as the boss of Cali's air transportation operation.

* The Antonov most recently registered in Colombia was leased late in September to a company that, shortly after the contract was signed, lost another of its large planes when it crash-landed near the southern tip of Baja California transporting an estimated 10 tons of cocaine.

Ukraine Investigation

The Ukrainian Security Service inquiry into the original Panama deals began last year as a local tax probe that quickly led investigators to allegations of drug smuggling and money laundering.

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