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The wings of the drug trade: An unprecedented journey into narco-aviation in Latin America

The wings of the drug trade: An unprecedented journey into narco-aviation in Latin America

The routes, the traps, the costs and the often tragic consequences of the trade that transports drugs from the jungles of Peru to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Vanessa Herrera received the small cooler at a hotel in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia as she waited for news of her son. The vegetables on top made her think it had been sent to her by mistake.

Hours later, she was told the box contained the remains of her son Luis Andrés Mojica.

“It was just like charcoal,” she recalled. “That cannot be my son. There were no bones, there were no teeth, there was no femur, there was nothing.”

The macabre delivery took place in 2015. Herrera has heard nothing more since then about Luis Andres or another son, Juan Pablo, both pilots who disappeared after telling her that they were leaving their native Colombia to fly for a crop spraying company in Bolivia.

“I didn't know which of my two sons to cry for. I didn't know what to do. It was a crazy situation,” Herrera told Univision News during a lengthy interview in Satipo, a town in Peru's Central Jungle region.

While looking for her sons, Herrera met Néstor Clavijo a Colombian oil transport retiree who faced the same anguish. His son Julián had survived a plane crash in the central Jungle but then disappeared. The pilot of that airplane was Herrera's son, Luis Andrés Mojica.

Herrera and Clavijo have since done little but search for the three young men. They distribute their photographs in the most remote spots, visit jails and prosecutors' offices and even go into the jungle, to shout the names of their children until tears drown their voices.

Néstor Clavijo shows a photo with his son disappeared in the Peruvian ju...
Néstor Clavijo shows a photo with his son disappeared in the Peruvian jungle.

The three are among the many young people who disappeared along one of Latin America's most dangerous drug trafficking routes, which carries Peruvian cocaine to Bolivia aboard small airplanes bought used in the United States. It is a little-known part of the trail of death and corruption clamped on the region by the drug cartels' efficient and uncontrollable air operations.

From Peru to Mexico, the map of drug smuggling routes drawn up by intelligence agencies ressembles Federal Express delivery routes. Cocaine in Bolivia is shipped to Brazil, the world's second largest consumer. It's also sent to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Other shipments go to Venezuela, and from there to Central America.

Day and night, a fleet of airplanes with both fake and real registrations, flying low and with minimal safety precautions, cross the region's skies to meet the demand in the U.S., Brazilian and European markets.

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A team of Univision Investiga reporters entered that world for several weeks to learn how it works, its routes, its pitfalls, its costs and the human chain that smuggles the drugs from Peruvian farms to Mexico's border with the United States.

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7 minutes: how long it takes to load 300 kilos of cocaine on a small plane in the Peruvian jungle
A video obtained by Univision Investiga, shows step by step a drug trafficking operation from the moment a small plane lands on a clandestine dirt landing strip until it takes off with the cargo seven minutes later, on a round-trip to and from Bolivia.

Julián

Nestor Clavijo retired from his job as a transportation technician at Colombia's oil company, Ecopetrol. His son Julián always wanted to be a pilot, and dreamed of flying a jet for a commercial airline. Clavijo paid for his English classes in London and flying lessons near Bogota. After graduating, he found a job with an air ambulance company. The father said an instructor at the Centauros de Villavicencio aviation school 80 miles east of Bogota persuaded Julián to work there as an instructor.

“'Move here, buddy. Come because there's work here. Come because you'll do better here,'" Clavijo says his son was told. "So, he was persuaded to quit and move to Villavicencio,” he added.

Grace Cardoso, a pilot and legal representative of the Centaurus school, told Univision that Julián passed a course for flight instructors and worked two months at the school.

“He flew about 30 hours with us, perhaps as an instructor, and we had no problems, no reports from the students or any emergencies or anything that would have made us suddenly believe that he was a bad pilot,” Cardoso said.

She said she did not know whether someone had recruited Julián to work in Bolivia.

“Each person gets a license or finishes, flies whatever hours or leaves, but we are not responsible for what they do after that,” Cardoso added.

Julián apparently did not like Villavicencio and returned to Bogota in August of 2015, according to his father. His mother, Marta Ligia Villegas, who is separated from Clavijo, said she started to notice something odd about her son, then 22 years old.

“He became very quiet, introverted,” Villegas told Univision.


“Juli, what's wrong with you?" she asked him. "Juli, do you have any problems?" she asked. Julián told her everything was fine.

She also worried that Julian was using three cell phones. “That's not normal, and he used them at all hours of the day,” she recalled.

Forced landing

Julián left Colombia in the middle of August of 2015, without saying goodby to his parents. He did not show up for a scheduled job interview in Bogota, and never contacted the potential employers again.

The only person who knew his whereabouts was his sister Jennifer. She kept the secret for five days, until the father suspected that she was talking with Julián on the telephone and grabbed it.

An angry Clavijo asked Julián where he was. The son said he was in Bolivia.

“I say to him, really angry, 'Julián, do me the favor of coming back. What are you doing?” Clavijo recalled. His son replied, “Take it easy, dad. I am ok. Pass the phone to Jennifer.”

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Jennifer then revealed that Julián and another pilot had made an emergency landing aboard a Cessna in the Peruvian jungle. Both were unharmed.

“Yes dad, Julián is over there in Peru, down a river called the Cutivireni near where it joins the river Ene,” Clavijo said he was told. Julián had been calling Jennifer on a satellite telephone.

Clavijo went on Google Earth and was dismayed when he found the spot, a deep green patch of jungle crossed by a thin river in central Peru, just east of the Andes.

“I thought he was doing something illegal. Immediately,” Clavijo said.


Julián kept in touch with his sister from the day of the crash, Aug. 18, until Aug. 29.

The young pilot was apparently hoping that his employers would rescue him. But he grew increasingly distressed. In their last talk, he told his sister, “'These people do not want to come for me. I don't know what's going on, and my batteries are dying,'” he told her.

Clavijo went to Peru the first week of September and eventually reached Cutivireni, a village in the Otishi national park about 210 miles east of Lima.

He could not go further into the jungle because he needed a permit from park authorities, but he heard many stories from area residents. Some said they had seen the pilots walking along a riverbank. Others said they had been picked up by natives who would have turned them over to authorities or killed them. Or they might have been captured by remnants of Maoist Shinning Path guerrillas who would keep them as slaves producing cocaine.

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“Some of the indigenous people said my son had been seen in a small airplane, very scared,” Clavijo said. Not surprising, he added, because it was the son's first flight in the region.

At this point in the interview, sitting on a rock on the banks of the river that flows through Satipo, Clavijo, who had remained calm as he told his story, erupted into uncontrollable sobs.

“Oh my boy!” he said, covering his face. “I don't know what he was doing here, my boy. My God! Why did he get into this?” he said. “Why? He's the only son I have.”

Vanessa Herrera, mother of two missing pilots. She received what she was...
Vanessa Herrera, mother of two missing pilots. She received what she was told were the charred remains of one of her sons, Luis Andrés, in a box. But she has not lost all hope of finding him alive. Luis Andrés may have died while flying a drug mission in the Peruvian jungle that went wrong. Juan Pablo went missing while attempting to search for him.

Rescue team?

The answer to the pilots' whereabouts may be in the hands of a group of men who local sources say were sent to the crash site to recover drugs that the airplane was allegedly carrying.

The men arrived at the crash site after a five-day trek. Ten of them were arrested and taken to the Satipo prison. It's not clear if they recovered any drugs. Sources said the men claimed they were only going to rescue the pilots and denied they knew of any drugs.

Clavijo is reluctant to talk about this issue because he knows that any comment could impact the fate of Julián and Herrera's son, Luis Andres.

He traveled to Peru six times since 2015 to search for his son. He sold an apartment in Bogota to pay for the costs. He now knows the geography of the area like a native. He has many videos of himself crossing rivers and visiting indigenous villages with local guides and sometimes with interpreters.

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During one of those trips he met Herrera, a clothing designer from Villavicencio.

Luis Andrés and Juan Pablo

Herrera has six children. She was married to a pilot who died in a car crash. Her sons Luis Andrés, 22, and Juan Pablo, 27, studied aviation in Venezuela. They also went to Bolivia in 2015 – to work in crop spraying, they told her.

A week later she learned that both had disappeared, one trying to rescue the other after a crash landing in the jungle.

“I threw myself on the floor, all day, to scream. I did not want to get up, to do anything,” she recalled.

The stories about what happened to her sons are varied and confused, but this is what she has managed to learn:

Luis Andrés was piloting one small plane with co-pilot Julián Clavijo when it crashed in Peru. After hearing of the accident, Luis Andrés' brother, Juan Pablo, left Bolivia to rescue him aboard an old plane that he borrowed from the owner of the business where he worked.

After a long flight, Juan Pablo spotted his brother and Julián near a river and dropped some food for them.

“He threw down food ..., crackers, flashlights,” Herrera said. “I was told that Luis Andrés told him on the radio, 'Brother, I saw you. Go away!'”

Herrera and Clavijo said they don't understand why their sons did not want to draw attention to themselves after the crash.

Herrera said she was also told Juan Pablo wanted to make another flight to Peru to help his brother, but the airplane's owner would not allow him to borrow the aircraft again.

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“He said he was sorry but that there would be no more searches, that there was no more money for that,” said Herrera. “And then my son, who was a bit impulsive, may have said something to the man. We were told, when they called me the next day, that my son had killed himself," she said incredulous.

She added: "You understand me? They disappeared him.”

In photos: the planes, pilots and clandestine infrastructure of narco-aviation
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