Cocaine-packed, Moscow-bound suitcases found at Russia's Buenos Aires embassy. What's new in this wild scandal?
Argentinian Security Ministry / Scanpix / LETA
It really was the “Rossiya” Special Flight Detachment
In December 2016, suitcases packed with 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of cocaine were discovered at a school-housing complex on the Russian embassy compound in Buenos Aires. A year later, those suitcases were sent to Moscow, but the drugs had now been swapped out for flour, and police detained the recipients in Moscow. Soon after the special operation was announced, Argentinian law enforcement published photographs showing the bags of “cocaine” being loaded onto an Ilyushin Il-96 aircraft with the tail number 96023.
A plane with the same number is part of the “Rossiya” Special Flight Detachment, which is responsible for transporting top Kremlin officials, including the president. The photos have led to speculation that the cocaine was supposed to be smuggled into Russia aboard a plane in Russia’s special detachment. The Kremlin denies these allegations, claiming that the tail number on the plane in the photographs was altered using photo-editing software.
On February 27, Argentinian law enforcement announced that the photos of the plane are genuine, stating that the same tail number appears on the pictures in their case files.
The news media’s “wild stories”
After the “cocaine affair” made headlines, journalists and bloggers started speculating about the potential involvement of Russian diplomats and security officials in shipments of illegal drugs to Russia from South America. For example, The Telegraph reported that the drugs were transported to Moscow aboard Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev’s plane. Deutsche Welle published a column by Konstantin Eggert, who wrote that the scandal demonstrates possible connections between drug traffickers and Russian intelligence workers.
Pavel Chikov, the head of the human rights group “Agora,” wrote on his Telegram channel that the cocaine-filled suitcases were discovered at the embassy in December 2016, and on December 20, 2016, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Latin American Department, Pyotr Polshikov, was found dead in his Moscow apartment. He’d been shot in the head, but police called it “an accident.” On February 26, 2018, the website 812’Online reported that nine Russian diplomats possibly linked to the “cocaine affair” died from heart attacks between 2016 and 2017.
This Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying the news media’s “dubious, deceitful publications” about the cocaine bust. The ministry singled out the report about Russian diplomats suffering heart attacks as a “wild” story. The press statement then disappeared from the Foreign Ministry’s website, a few hours after it was published, but it later re-appeared with minor revisions.
Cigars and CIA schemes
The alleged organizer of the drug smuggling operation is a Russian citizen living in Germany named Andrey Kovalchuk. According to investigators, he asked Ali Abyanov, a former employee at Russia’s embassy in Buenos Aires, to sneak the cocaine-packed suitcases into the embassy building, so they could later be loaded onto an official Russian plane and sent to Moscow. The criminals later allegedly decided to smuggle the bags to Russia by shipping them as Abyanov’s personal belongings. When the cargo packed with flour arrived in Moscow, police detained Abyanov and another two suspects.
Kovalchuk’s lawyer told Rosbalt that his client denies the drug smuggling allegations. He says the suitcases contained cigars, coffee, and alcohol Kovalchuk purchased and set aside at the Russian embassy’s school in Buenos Aires “with Abyanov’s permission.” Afterwards, Kovalchuk says he tried to negotiate the transportation of his things to Moscow together with Ali Abyanov’s belongings — even sending a private jet to Argentina to carry the luggage — but he was unable to get his bags. In December 2017, Kovalchuk’s lawyer says he finally managed to ship the suitcases using a plane he chartered in Uzbekistan.
When the cargo landed in Moscow, the bags were mysteriously packed with a white powder, says Kovalchuk’s lawyer, who claims that “someone” exploited the fact that his friend Abyanov had returned to Russia and simply planted drugs in their bags. On February 28, Kovalchuk’s lawyer said he believes American intelligence agents are responsible, arguing that Washington is trying to discredit Russia’s diplomatic mission in Argentina.
Ali Abyanov also denies the drug smuggling charges. His lawyer says he does know Andrey Kovalchuk, but he never considered him an “intelligence agent.”
Police in Buenos Aires detained another Russian citizen
On February 28, Argentinian Security Minister Patricia Bullrich announced that local police arrested another Russian citizen trying to smuggle cocaine in a suitcase with a false bottom. According to the newspaper Clarin, law enforcement detained the 50-year-old Russian citizen (whose name hasn’t been released) on February 25. He tried to board a Lufthansa flight from Buenos Aires to Frankfurt.