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'Air Cocaine' smuggling trial opens in the south of France

Gérard Julien, AFP | French nationals Bruno Odos and Pascal Odos, respectively co-pilot and pilot, arrive at the Assize Court of Aix-en-Provence, France, prior to a hearing in the ‘Air Cocaine’ trial, on February 18, 2019.

A high-profile French trial over the evocatively named Air Cocaine drug smuggling scandal began Monday in Aix-en-Provence after six years in the making.

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The nine men accused in the case include a pair of elite French ex-fighter pilots, a onetime bodyguard to the stars, private jet company bosses and a customs officer alleged to have looked the other way while hundreds of kilos of cocaine entered the French Riviera from Caribbean locales.

It all began on an airport tarmac in the Dominican resort of Punta Cana one night in March 2013, when local authorities discovered 26 suitcases stuffed with drugs in a private jet bound for France via the Azores islands. The Falcon 50 jet was so laden with cocaine – 680kg with a European street value of €20 million – that the incriminating luggage didn’t all fit in the cargo hold. The overflow was packed into the business jet’s onboard lounge.

Dominican police arrested four Frenchmen at the scene, two pilots and two passengers. The pilots, Pascal Fauret and Bruno Odos, now aged 58 and 59, had no criminal records and an illustrious flight history: as French naval and air force fighter pilots, they had transported nuclear weapons before making the switch to corporate aviation.

Fauret, Odos and the two passengers, Nicolas Pisapia and Alain Castany, denied any wrongdoing. But all four were held for 15 months in the Dominican Republic before being convicted and sentenced to 20 years behind bars in the Caribbean nation.

Released pending their appeal, the pilots managed to flee the Dominican Republic by boat in still-mysterious circumstances to the French Antilles territory of Saint Martin before flying on to Martinique and then mainland France. The pair requested a summons by a French judge through a lawyer but they were instead arrested days after their arrival at home.

Both pilots go on trial in Aix-en-Provence starting Monday, with the key question being whether they knew of the illicit cargo they were transporting, either in Punta Cana or on previous flights between the Caribbean and France.

The pilots deny all knowledge, leading one colleague to tell investigators, “There are two possibilities: Either they’re dummies or they’re in cahoots.”

The passengers, for their part, will be tried at a later date. Castany, 72, whose Dominican conviction was reaffirmed on appeal, was later repatriated to France legally for health reasons. Pisapia, meanwhile, is awaiting appeal in the Dominican Republic and is not permitted to leave the country.

Muddy suitcases

French investigators also scrutinised two other transatlantic return flights in the four months before the Punta Cana incident. They took interest in the “suspicious behaviour” of the passengers on the same Falcon 50 upon its arrival in Saint-Tropez from the Dominican resort of Puerto Plata. Around 10 muddy and battered suitcases were unloaded from that December 2012 flight and transferred to two waiting cars under the supervision of customs officer François-Xavier Manchet. Accused of helping the suspected traffickers import a haul of drugs and launder €500,000, Manchet is also in the dock in Aix-en-Provence.

In Saint-Tropez, a jetsetting businessman named Frank Colin was alleged to have taken delivery of the shady cargo. According to Le Monde, Colin is married to the wealthy granddaughter of a Romanian former president and was once a bodyguard to celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Mike Tyson and George Clooney. Investigating judges didn’t believe his claim that he was acting undercover as part of a sting operation to take down the drug traffickers.

Investigators suspect the scheme’s mastermind to be convicted cocaine trafficker Ali Bouchareb, 47. Thought to be the second man unloading cargo in Saint-Tropez alongside Colin, Bouchareb is alleged to have put “hundreds of thousands of euros” towards organising the transatlantic smuggling flights. The only one of the men on trial in Aix-en-Provence who is currently behind bars, he was arrested in Spain in 2014 when police caught him unloading 420kg of Peruvian cocaine and weapons from shipping containers in Tarragona.

Beyond the extraordinary twists in the plot of the six-year-long saga – including the pilots absconding to France – the Air Cocaine affair has also had its share of red herrings. The Falcon 50 plane at the heart of the investigation belonged to French eyewear magnate Alain Afflelou. But it was determined that Afflelou, who leased the plane out through an agency when he wasn’t using it himself, had nothing to do with the aircraft’s nefarious other uses.

Another dead end in the case involved no lesser a personage than a former French president. For a time, investigators were examining Nicolas Sarkozy’s phone records, having come across his name on receipts after he used flights dispatched by the same company Afflelou used to lease out his aircraft.

“What I want to know is what could justify an investigating magistrate taking such measures solely because I used the same airline,” an annoyed Sarkozy told the French daily Le Parisien in 2015. “What do they think I did? Fly to Punta Cana with 700kg of cocaine? All this would be just laughable if it weren’t about a violation of legal principles that all French people share.”

As the trial opened, several of the defendants’ lawyers argued that it should be postponed, disputing the fairness of a trial held in the absence of two key players: the Punta Cana passengers Castany and Pisapia.

The Aix-en-Provence trial, the city’s largest of the year, is due to last through April 5, with scores of witnesses slated to testify before a special jury-less court of five judges. If convicted, some of the defendants face up to 30 years in prison.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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