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AMPA Warns of Central American Cartels Using Air Ambulances to Transport Drugs

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At the most recent Air Medical Transport Conference, the Air Medical Physician Association (AMPA) board was informed of shocking recent developments that are seriously affecting air ambulances whose operations include transporting patients to and from Central America.

According to Dr. Eduardo Loyola, an AMPA member and medical director from Costa Rica, authorities in that country have discovered that drug cartels have begun to exploit air ambulances as part of their activities in Central America.

Dr. Loyola says the Costa Rican cartels have “discovered new and more sophisticated ways to support the logistics, fund the transport operations, and infiltrate key players” by using air medical operations.

When a helicopter used in air medical transport crashed recently in the Costa Rican jungle, it was discovered to have been carrying 400 kilos of cocaine on board.

Last month, a fixed-wing aircraft that crashed after taking off was found to have had 170 kilos of cocaine hidden inside its fuel tanks.

Also last month, San Jose’s Tico Times reported that one of the most powerful drug cartels, the Sinaloa cartel, has established a presence in Costa Rica and has already begun storing and repackaging drugs for shipment north. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials report that traffickers are noticing vulnerabilities in the country’s deteriorating equipment, small police force, and lack of an army.

The DEA says there will be more to come this year, as other cartels see the opportunity to have more power.

Just this month, Gustavo Julia, pilot and shareholder of the Argentine company “Medical Jet,” and his co-pilot Gaston Miret were detained in Spain, after dogs discovered 940 kilos of cocaine on board their Challenger 604 medical aircraft. After flying close to a metric ton of cocaine across the Atlantic from Argentina to Spain in one of the company’s air ambulances, owned by the Julia family, a chance encounter with the drug-sniffing dogs led to the three businessmen on board being detained by the Guarda Civil. Spanish authorities believe the incident may be linked to a major drug cartel with activities in Central America.

Speaking to the AMPA board in Ft. Lauderdale, Dr. Loyola conceded that the reach of the problem is impossible to say right now, but that it is unfortunate that some air ambulance operators have found they can make more of a profit helping the cartels than transporting patients.

P.S. Martin, MD, President of the AMPA board, said that his “gut and experience” both lead him to believe it’s highly unlikely that this kind of criminal activity is isolated only to Costa Rica. The board believes that if this activity escalates, it could end up becoming a detriment, and a danger, to all air ambulance crews who transport patients internationally; but particularly those who transport patients in and out of Central America.

At the conference, Dr. Loyola listed six recommendations to all medical crews who fly internationally:

Caution list reprinted from Air Medical Journal, January-February 2011, Volume 30, No. 1

  1. Exercise caution when traveling to any airport in Central America.
  2. Double-check the travel documents and identity of the patient and their family members.
  3. Beware of cash payments.
  4. Remain highly vigilant and notify authorities immediately if any signs of aircraft or equipment tampering are noticed.
  5. Consider including in your protocols a request for drug-sniffing dogs to screen the aircraft.
  6. Exercise caution while in country and carry the phone numbers of American Embassies.

For all air ambulance crews whose coverage area includes Central America, here is a printable list of contact numbers for U.S. Embassies in the region. AAW recommends that you keep a copy of this list handy and carry it when flying to or stopping in any of the following countries.

U.S. Embassies in Central America:

(To print, click on the printer icon next to “share this story” at the end of this article.)

Belize:

(501) 822-4011

After-Hours/Emergencies call (501) 610-5030

Columbia:

(571) 315-0811

Costa Rica:

(506) 2519-2000

After-Hours/Emergencies call (506) 8863-4895

El Salvador:

(503) 2501-2999

Guatemala:

(502) 2326-4000

Honduras:

(504) 2236-9320 / (504) 2238-5114

Nicaragua:

(505) 2252-7100

Panama:

(507) 207-7000

Venezuela:

(0212) 975–6411

Numbers listed above are as dialed in-country. If dialing from the United States, please visit the appropriate embassy’s website at USembassy.gov to find the appropriate dialing instructions.

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