A Moscow court has opened preliminary hearings in the case of suspects accused of attempting to smuggle nearly half a ton of cocaine in diplomatic baggage from Argentina to Russia.
Russian and Argentine officials pooled efforts to catch the suspected drug smugglers after bags containing 389 kilogrammes of cocaine were found hidden inside luggage that was seized at a Russian Embassy school in Buenos Aires in December m2016. The drugs were estimated to have a street value of about US$61 million
“A gang of narco-criminals was trying to use the diplomatic courier service of the Russian Embassy” to ship the drugs to Europe, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said, referring to diplomatic bags known as pouches that are granted certain legal protections and are not checked normally by customs.
The investigation began after Victor Koronelli, the Russian Ambassador to Argentina, and three members of the Russian federal security service, reported to Bullrich that they had suspicions about the diplomatic luggage found at a school that is annexed to the Embassy.
Once authorities confirmed that there were drugs inside the 16 pieces of luggage, they devised a plan to catch the criminals: they swapped cocaine for flour and placed a GPS to track the luggage.
"This has been one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations that Argentina has faced," Bullrich said at a press conference in 2018.
"At 3am we had to send people from the border police to buy the 389 kilograms of wheat at the central market [in Buenos Aires] because no-one had 389 kilogrammes in a warehouse," she said. "The drugs never travelled to Russia. Only the flour travelled."
The luggage was flown to Russia in 2017. Bullrich said three Argentine customs officials travelled to Russia to monitor the delivery, and that Ishtimir Khudzhmov and Vladimir Kalmykov, were arrested when they went to pick up the cargo.
In February 2018, after a year-long joint sting operation, authorities arrested Russian-Argentine citizens Alexander Chikalo, who is suspected of being in charge of the logistics, and City police officer Ivan Blizniouk, a naturalised Russian who is accused of providing contacts to jump through customs controls.
On Friday, the suspected ringleader who was arrested in Germany, Andrei Kovalchuk, faced a preliminary hearing in Moscow along with three other suspects. They have denied the accusations.