Inside Colombia’s ‘Air Chapo’ Cocaine Shipping Scandal
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast
Allegations that Mexico’s most famous drug lord teamed up with top officials and a U.S. ICE agent have shocked even cynical Colombians.
CALI, Colombia—In Pablo Escobar’s day, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the erstwhile Cocaine King moved mass quantities of the drug out of Colombia. But his planes loaded with dope had to take off from small airstrips hacked out of the jungle. That limited the size of the aircraft and the amount of contraband they could carry.
After Escobar was killed in 1993, things started to change and by the mid-2000s his successor as kingpin-of-kingpins, Mexico’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, allegedly came up with a simple solution to that smuggling dilemma. Why muck around in the bush when you can use one of the biggest and busiest hubs in Latin America to ship your illicit cargo?
According to multiple detailed reports in the Colombian and Mexican press, Guzmán turned flights out of Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport into his own cocaine delivery service for about two years using a now defunct company dubbed Air Cargo Lines. And he had plenty of help doing it.
The central allegations in the story are sourced to an anonymous whistleblower who claims that the deal was done through a broad narco-trafficking conspiracy involving a former Colombian president, a Colombian senator, Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel cohorts, airport officials, right-wing paramilitaries—and an ICE agent working out of the U.S. Embassy.
El Chapo himself already is serving a life sentence at America’s supermax prison in Colorado. His lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. Other alleged ringleaders in this aviation scam deny the claims. But the informant reportedly stands by his statements, and independent researchers find his testimony credible.
So, by this account, how did Chapo Air come to be? And since the whistleblower remains unavailable, apparently in hiding, what corroboration is there for this story that has sent shock waves through the Colombian political elite—and should shake up some American law enforcement officials as well?
The charges come courtesy of Richard Maok, a former detective with Colombia’s treasury police (the fiscalía), who now lives in Canada.
This isn’t the first time Maok has been a thorn in the side of Colombian government officials. In 2002, he uncovered a bloody nexus among military officers, right-wing politicians, and drug-trafficking paramilitaries. That scandal was widely covered by the New York Times and other international media, and resulted in a number of high-profile arrests. But it also led to death threats against Maok and, eventually, he sought asylum in Canada.
Apparently not one to be deterred by exile and what he says are several attempts on his life, Maok has continued to launch scathing attacks on corruption from afar, using his popular website as a platform. And he makes no secret of his fierce antipathy to former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who remains one of the country’s most powerful politicians. (The headline on Maok’s version of the story is a hashtag, #ElFinalDeUribe, the end of Uribe.)
A few weeks ago, Maok says, he was contacted by a man we’ll call Señor Pista who provided evidence that in the 2000s he had worked as the security director for a Colombian air cargo company—and that he had bombshell accusations to disclose.
So, in early January, the whistle blew. Names were named. And a blow-by-blow description of an audacious drug trafficking scheme began to emerge, all of it catalogued in meticulous detail on Maok’s website.
The most sensational accusation brought by Maok’s informant was that former president Uribe had been involved in the scam during his time in office.
But perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Maok notes, “Uribe and his family have been accused of links to trafficking and organized crime for years.”
Also unsurprisingly, Uribe denies all these allegations.
A declassified 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and published in 2004 by the National Security Archive at George Washington University in D.C., offered a damning assessment of Uribe and his Medellín Cartel connections.
The document led with the caution that it was “an info report, not finally evaluated intel” and originally was classified CONFIDENTIAL NOFORN (not to be released to foreign nationals) WNINTEL (Warning Notice—Intelligence Sources or Methods Involved). It listed “Important Colombian Narco-Traffickers” and their associates.
Escobar is cited as “the maximum chief of the Medellín Cartel who began as an assassin and now is in charge of the biggest multi-national criminal organization in the world.”
Further down the same page we find “Alvaro Uribe Velez—a Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin Cartel at high government levels. Uribe was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the U.S. His father was murdered in Colombia for his connection to the narcotic traffickers. Uribe has worked for the Medellin Cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria.”
National Security Archive, George Washington University
At the time, Uribe was governor of Antioquia department, which has Medellín as its capital.
Despite these allegations in official Pentagon communications, when Uribe was president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010 he was able to position himself as a staunch U.S. ally in both the War on Drugs and the fight against Marxist guerrillas. Those postures made him something of a darling in D.C., and that fact granted him a certain amount of political immunity back home in Colombia.
In the trenches of the War on Drugs, it’s sometimes hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Often, it’s more like “our” bad guys against other, maybe worse, bad guys. But the distinctions can get pretty subjective.
A 1993 State Department cable released in 2018 notes allegations that Uribe’s early political campaigns were financed by the Medellín Cartel, but he had begun to fear for his life because he had failed to deliver sufficient political favors “for his Medellín Cartel mentors.”
Escobar had escaped from jail. He was on the run, increasingly desperate, and Uribe began trying to reposition himself as a go-between with the U.S. embassy, talking to Escobar’s wife in an effort to get Escobar to surrender. The cable notes that when Uribe met with a U.S. diplomat, Uribe “constantly paced the small office; he was visibly agitated,” but insisted there could be no dialogue with Escobar about government concessions the kingpin had requested. “As far as I’m concerned, Escobar has three options—surrender unconditionally, be captured, or be killed.”
National Security Archive, George Washington University
Escobar died during a shootout with Colombian National Police in December 1993.
Uribe has dismissed accounts of his ties to Escobar as “fake news,” but former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette, who served from 1994 to 1997, gave an interview in 2015 for a book on his tenure in Bogotá in which he said Uribe had “no interest in being honest with me or other people. That’s who Álvaro Uribe is.” Frechette, a career diplomat, also called Uribe’s use of U.S. funds to arm drug-trafficking right-wing militias a “setup that Washington swallowed.”
At the moment, ex-President Uribe is also under investigation by Colombia’s supreme court for attempting to bribe and manipulate witnesses who have linked him to widespread extrajudicial killings, including the massacre of 15 villagers in 1997, while he was still a governor. Nonprofit organizations from at least four countries, including the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Lawyers Without Borders, have sent observers to monitor Uribe’s trial.
According to the Colombian newspaper Vanguardia, Uribe is also the subject of 276 additional pending investigations by the country’s Congressional Accusation Commission—from wrongful contract infractions to violations of international humanitarian law—although he declares himself innocent of all charges.
Uribe, now a senator, remains one of the most influential—and widely feared—men in Colombia. Current President Iván Duque is often described as Uribe’s protégé, or his puppet, depending on who you ask.
The Powder Elite
“Finally we have a survivor come forward to speak out against Uribe. Many people in Colombia were waiting for this moment,” says Maok, whose YouTube video on the air cargo scandal has racked up more than 370,000 hits since it was posted last month.
Neither Uribe nor spokespersons for his Central Democratic Party responded to multiple interview requests for this article. But Senator Carlos Felipe Mejía, a member of the party, fired back the day after Maok’s report went viral. Mejía uploaded his own video to Twitter denying Maok’s accusations and referring to the “supposed” trafficking plot as “Operation Liar.” Mejía’s short clip also attacked Maok himself, calling him a fugitive from Colombian justice who had “escaped to Canada”—despite the Canadian decision that he should be granted asylum as a victim of death threats and political persecution.
On January 24, during an interview with the magazine La Semana, Colombian senator and former mayor of Bogota Gustavo Petro also accused Uribe of having ties to the Sinaloa Cartel and specifically mentioned the El Dorado cocaine scandal.
“Doesn’t this merit an investigation?” he said. “[Isn’t it] terrible what this could mean?”
Gonzalo Guillén, a Colombian journalist and director of the magazine La Nueva Prensa, also finds Maok’s reporting credible.
“The relation between Chapo and Uribe is unmistakable,” Guillén says, and cites his own research to back up the connection. “I had already interviewed a pilot for Chapo Guzmán, who had all the information…. So this was no shock to me.”
In that interview, Chapo’s pilot claimed that the DEA had managed to catch at least one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s flights into Bogotá. A Boeing 707 had been sent from Mexico full of cash and expected to return with “several tons” of cocaine, but ended up being sold for scrap after it was seized. Interestingly, that could imply the cartel was using other airlines, as Maok’s whistleblower makes no mention of a Boeing jet being involved in the Air Cargo Lines scheme.
Guillén also points out family ties between Uribe and Chapo, notably the fact that Uribe’s brother was married to the sister of a man named Alex Cifuentes, who just happened to be Chapo’s head of operations in Colombia. Both Cifuentes and his sister have since been extradited to the United States on charges of narcotics trafficking. Another of Uribe’s brothers has been charged by the Prosecutor General’s Office in Colombia with leading death squads to carry out “social cleansing” in the 1990s.
These allegations about Colombia follow on the heels of several similar and possibly related disclosures about drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America.
In December, Genaro García Luna—Mexico’s former national security secretary and the architect of the nation’s long-running drug war—was arrested in the U.S. on charges of taking bribes from Chapo’s Sinaloa outfit. In Honduras, the sitting president has been named an unindicted co-conspirator in a drug-trafficking case by U.S. prosecutors, as was a former president of that country.
During Chapo’s New York trial last year, Mexico’s most recent commander in chief, Enrique Peña Nieto, also was accused by a witness of being on Chapo’s payroll. That same witness also alleged Chapo’s criminal organization had bribed the Colombian air force for information on aircraft flight routes and strategic installations, and bought off General Oscar Naranjo, the national police commissioner under Uribe. Those charges were denied. But the witness in question? None other than Uribe’s brother-in-law Cifuentes.
Robert Bunker, a cartel specialist at the U.S. Army War College, describes the ongoing pattern of corruption as “structural in nature.”
“In countries with traditions of authoritarian governance and impunity—such as Mexico, Honduras, Colombia—the elites have a tendency to profit when they can from illicit dealings,” Bunker said. “The entire system in such countries is skewed by elites and traffickers working together for mutual economic advantage.”
Guns, Gems, and Cash
From 2006 to 2007, some 10 metric tons of cocaine were shipped from El Dorado airport to Sinaloa, using Air Cargo Lines as a shell company, according to Maok’s informant. Uribe, who allegedly was known to the traffickers by the alias “Gobierno” (Government), is supposed to have arranged for a special hangar to be built at El Dorado solely for the purpose of handling contraband for Chapo and his partners.
“Uribe authorized the Aerocivil, or civil aviation authority, to build a cold storage facility close to the tarmac,” Maok says. “That’s where they kept the cocaine.” Most of it came from the Antioquia region, and allegedly was supplied by the same far-right paramilitaries Maok had exposed in 2002.
From the cold-storage unit it was flown to Mexico in a DC-8 four-engine cargo plane. In return, Uribe is supposed to have received jewelry and cash from the Sinaloa Cartel, including an emerald presented to him in the presidential palace, and at least a million dollars in U.S. currency, which Maok’s informant claims he delivered personally.
Uribe’s chief paramilitary ally, who is alleged by Maok’s informant to have delivered the cocaine to Bogotá, in turn is supposed to have received a shipment of high-powered 5.7 mm pistols, called “cop killers” because the rounds they fire can penetrate police body armor.
The whistleblower named other major players, such as Chapo’s son, Jesús Guzmán, who allegedly entered Colombia without passing through customs in order to speed up Air Cargo’s delivery efforts. And Sinaloa Cartel co-founder Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who allegedly sent his own people to assist with logistics.
All told, the operation involved scores of people, including airline officials, Air Cargo Lines personnel, and various paramilitaries and sicarios.
Due to restrictions on flight manifests, and runway scheduling, “If top officials hadn’t been involved,” says journalist Guillén, “they couldn’t have shipped out a single gram.”
One of the most eye-popping names on Señor Pista’s list of alleged conspirators is an American special agent for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who was serving in Colombia at the time Pista was working as security director for the airline and as an ICE asset.
Pista says his handler went by the alias “Abastos” (Supplies).
“By 2006 I was [working with] Abastos, an ICE official for Colombia, who received me at the American embassy,” the whistlerblower says in Maok’s published report. “There I told him about all the illegal activities of Mr. Raúl Jiménez Villamil.” Villamil was president of Air Cargo Lines at the time, and is now in prison in Spain after he was caught using the airline to ship some two tons of cocaine into that country.
But to the informant’s dismay, he found that his handler at the embassy already knew all about the cargo runs out of El Dorado.
“After several meetings with [Abastos], he confirmed that there was no problem with Raúl Jiménez Villamil and that I could work for both of them,” that is, for Abastos and Jiménez Villamil, the source says.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, ICE, and the DEA did not respond to interview requests for this article.
“Sometimes special agents work undercover out of the embassy, pretending to aid cartel operations so as to capture an entire criminal network,” Maok says. “The curious thing about [Abastos] of ICE is that it appears he knew what was going on, yet didn’t bust anybody, even while tons of cocaine were being flown into Mexico.”
More Powerful Than Escobar
Colombia produces 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, notes Guillén at La Nueva Prensa, with much of it bound for the U.S. market. That profound, concentrated, and illicit wealth has resulted in a “narco-state with a narco-economy,” Guillén said.
“Today’s traffickers aren’t like Pablo Escobar. They’re much more sophisticated and powerful. And they’ve learned they can’t operate without buying off the authorities.”
Bunker says there are two primary factors that make a country prone to becoming a so-called narco-state. One is that “it is authoritarian in nature” meaning its weak judicial institutions are unable to hold ruling officials to account, and that “narcotics production and trafficking represents a high value industry [compared to] the rest of the country’s economic output.”
Back in 2007, when Chapo Air shut down, it wasn’t because of a threat from ICE or the government, but because more than a ton of cocaine went missing in Mexico. After that, a couple of sicarios showed up at El Dorado aiming to kill the owner of the DC-8 transport used in the runs. A month later, says Maok’s informant, a video arrived at Air Cargo Lines HQ showing the beheaded corpse of the alleged thief.
Today, more than a decade after the El Dorado Airport smuggling ring self-destructed, the Sinaloa cartel maintains a far stronger presence in Colombia than even Chapo could have foreseen. Chapo’s old syndicate, currently ruled by his partner Ismael Zambada and Guzmán’s own sons, has moved on from merely exporting, and now has “direct access to cocaine production for eventual distribution into the U.S.,” Bunker says.
They’ve achieved that by working closely with the “network of operatives, supporting gangs and private armies, and Colombian governmental elites that they are colluding with.”
Former prosecution agent Maok describes the growing power of Sinaloa and other cartels in Colombia as a threat to civic freedoms.
“In the narco-state, real democracy doesn’t exist. Instead of his constituents, the corrupt politician serves the criminals who have bought him off. Meanwhile, armed groups decide who will run for office and are free to kill anyone who challenges them,” Maok says.
“The people of Colombia deserve something better than this kind of domination,” he says. “They deserve justice.”