Tom Blackwell

April 12, 2022

-Edmonton Journal


A Canadian charter airline says its pilots and flight attendants are being imprisoned in dangerous, inhumane conditions in the Dominican Republic after reporting to police what turned out to be 200 kilograms of cocaine stashed inside their plane.

The aircraft – a Bombardier regional jet that until two years ago was flying under the Air Canada Express banner – is being held at Punta Cana airport after the discovery of the drugs late last week.

Pivot Airlines said its crew found the contraband in a maintenance compartment that contained “critical” electrical gear and reported the find both to local officials and the RCMP.

A maintenance worker who was part of the crew had opened a small door under the plane’s fuselage to access the “avionics bay” when he noticed a single bag. Not sure whether it was contraband, a bomb or something else, the man immediately reported the discovery, said a source familiar with the situation. Dominican police searched the space and found the other seven sacks.

The employees averted a likely air disaster that could have been caused by the extra weight and the flammable packages being close to electrical equipment, said the company.

The avionics bay is in a cramped crawl space and needs good airflow to avoid over-heating, which would have been compromised by the array of cocaine parcels, the source said.

The crew members are now being held in separate detention facilities. The men are inside a communal cell with accused drug criminals, said the company in a statement.

“They do not speak the language, have been identified as reporting the contraband to authorities and fear for their safety,” said Pivot. “We are deeply concerned for the safety, security and ethical and humane treatment of our crew.”

“It is unacceptable that a Canadian aircrew could remain detained for the duration of a potential twelve-month investigation for a suspected crime that they reported.”

A hearing to determine if the Canadians would be kept in custody longer was tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.

The plane used to be owned by a sub-contractor that carried 1.5 million passengers annually on Air Canada Express flights, before going bankrupt when Air Canada cancelled the arrangement in late 2019.

My phone blew up when this happened… it’s a big deal

Today the same CRJ-100 – now painted a plain white – sits in Punta Cana after the country’s anti-narcotics agency says officers found more than 200 kilograms of cocaine – about $25-million-worth in street value – inside the plane. It had arrived on March 31 and was scheduled to fly to Toronto.

Among the nine Canadians who have been detained for questioning are the jet’s two pilots and two flight attendants, three of whom had crewed those Air Canada flights until relatively recently.

Pivot is a fledgling, charter outfit born out of the demise of Air Georgian – the Air Canada sub-contractor – where many of the country’s commercial aviators began their careers. The industry is abuzz over the incident, said a former Georgian pilot, who often flew the jet held by the Dominicans.

“My phone blew up when this happened: everyone who worked there, pilots, flight attendants, it’s a big deal,” the ex-crew member said.

“I actually didn’t believe it at first,” said the pilot, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic in in Canada’s small aviation industry. “All four of (the crew) I personally know, I’ve worked with all of them. My brain was trying to process: how could this be happening?”

The Dominican Republic’s National Directorate for Drug Control (DNCD) said in a news release that it inspected the plane in response to an intelligence report and eventually found eight black gym bags packed with 200 bricks of cocaine.

The bags had been hidden in some of the airliner’s “control compartments,” said a news release from the agency.

“An extensive investigation process has been initiated around this case,” it said. “The Public Ministry, assisted by DNCD agents, are working hard to clearly establish who is directly linked to the seizure of the substance.”

The former Georgian pilot said the “control compartments” where the cocaine was supposedly found are places he said ground crew might access, but not normally the pilots or flight attendants.

Cocaine is not produced or coca plants grown anywhere in the Caribbean so it likely originated in Colombia or possibly Peru or Bolivia, said Jason Eligh, a senior expert with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Given that flights arriving from any of those coke-producing nations face intense scrutiny, traffickers often route them first through other places, he said, and the West Indies is a favourite.

“It’s a wonderful place in that you’ve got a lot of islands, you’ve got a great ability to hide marine vessels,” said Eligh. “Geographically it’s a very good way point.”

He also said criminals frequently transport illicit drugs by plane, including commercial passenger aircraft, and the large majority of them reach their destination without the contraband being intercepted. Baggage handlers and other ground crew – as well as sometimes air crew – have been found to be involved in the past, said Eligh.

And it usually takes some time before police intercept shipments like the one on the Pivot plane, he said.

“It’s probably not the first time this route has been used,” said Eligh. “You don’t make a seizure on the first time someone has been exploiting a particular route.”

The plane, registered under C-FWRR and still bearing the 105 “tail number” used when it flew Air Canada Express routes, has travelled extensively in the Caribbean over the last year, according to the FlightRadar24 website.

Almost all of its 65 flights since mid-December have been to or from the region, including stops in the Dominican Republic, Saint Martin, Jamaica, Nassau, Puerto Rico and Antigua.

The plane made the most visits to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, flying in or out more than 65 times since April 2021. Earlier this year, it operated scheduled flights under contract to Inter-Caribbean Airlines, which is based in the Turks and Caicos.

Another frequent destination – 18 landings and takeoffs in the last year – was tiny, jungle-covered Suriname in the northeast corner of South America. Pivot had a contract with a mining company to transport its employees to and from Suriname. The country also moves “tons” of cocaine, according to Colombia-based InSight Crime.