A former Russian diplomatic official and an Argentine police officer have been arrested in connection with the seizure of a huge cocaine shipment discovered at the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires, following a yearlong investigation into an international drug ring, the government announced Thursday.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said the 389 kilogrammes of cocaine were hidden inside luggage that was seized in December 2016.
“A gang of narco-criminals was trying to use the diplomatic courier service of the Russian Embassy” to ship the drugs to Europe, she said, referring to diplomatic bags known as pouches that are granted certain legal protections and are not checked normally by customs.
Authorities on Wednesday 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.
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.
"At 3am we had to send people from the border police to buy the 389 kilograms of wheat to 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.
A suspect, who Bullrich only referred to as "K," was in charge of buying the drug, and introducing it to the Embassy in Argentina. He is still at large in Germany and is wanted under an international arrest warrant.
The drug, of “very high purity,” she said, was destined for Russia and probably Germany, where the suspected mastermind lives.
“We believe the German police will arrest this fugitive,” Bullrich declared.
Authorities said the drugs have a street value in Russia of about US$61 million. Bullrich told local reporters that the drugs discovered had a street value of around US$50 million.