Cocaine Cargo: Pivot Airlines Drug Bust Investigation

Cocaine Cargo: Pivot Airlines Drug Bust Investigation

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Remember how earlier this year a Canadian airline crew was detained in the Dominican Republic, after they reported $25 million in cocaine hidden in the maintenance bay of their aircraft? Well, within the past few days a documentary has been released about this case, and I finally got around to watching it last night. All I can say is… WOW.

I wanted to share my updated take on this incident, now that I’ve seen this.

Basics of the Pivot Airlines cocaine bust in Dominican Republic

In April 2022, Canadian charter airline Pivot Airlines was scheduled to operate a charter flight from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, to Toronto, Canada. Just prior to departure, a master caution switch went off in the cockpit, causing the crew to do a more thorough inspection of the aircraft. During this time, the crew discovered black duffel bags in the maintenance bay of the aircraft.

They alerted authorities immediately, and as it turned out, the bags contained over 200kg of cocaine, with a street value of around $25 million. For reporting this, the entire crew was jailed in the Dominican Republic for nine days. Once released from jail, they had their passports confiscated, and were put on indefinite house arrest.

Amazingly enough they were there for nearly eight months. They were never charged with anything and weren’t even questioned, but they just weren’t allowed to leave the Dominican Republic. That finally changed recently — after eight months they were allowed to return home and be reunited with their families.

The Pivot Airlines CRJ-100ER involved in this incident

How did drugs get onto this plane?

Canada’s CTV W5 has done a thorough investigation into what exactly happened, and this past Sunday a documentary named “Cocaine Cargo” was released on this topic. The documentary is roughly 45 minutes, and you can watch it for yourself here. It’s in four parts, so when you finish each clip, just scroll to the next one.

We now have a much clearer picture of who might be behind the drugs. Here are some of the key points that I found to be most interesting:

  • The request for a flight charter was made by someone who claimed to be the chief financial officer for Trust Capital, which claimed to be a real estate investment firm; the claim was that a charter was needed for client groups coming from the United States and Dubai to the Dominican Republic
  • Pivot Airlines didn’t see any red flags, as there was a company logo, a working phone number, and even an address for a downtown Toronto office; the company wired the charter costs out of a Canadian bank account
  • Pivot Airlines did two charters for the company, and it was the second one where the drugs ended up being discovered
  • When the crew alerted authorities in the Dominican Republic about what was going on, they came to the aircraft, but only seized roughly half of the duffel bags with cocaine; the remaining ones stayed in the maintenance bay, and it wasn’t until the crew called authorities again that these were confiscated
  • Authorities in the Dominican Republic seemingly tried to take credit for this bust, claiming that they “inspected the plane” based on “intelligence reports,” which doesn’t accurately reflect that the crew reported this
  • A deeper investigation was done after the drug bust, and it became clear that Trust Capital didn’t exist; the CFO didn’t exist, there was no tenant at the address listed, the phone number had been disconnected, and the email bounced back
  • About $150K of the charter fees could be traced to a man in Edmonton, who claimed to be a “real estate consultant,” and who refused to speak about his involvement in this case
  • Of the 11 passengers who had taken the two charter flights, four had criminal charges related to drugs, including drug trafficking, and all were Canadian (even though the claim was that they were from the USA and UAE)
  • Interestingly the Punta Cana Airport video surveillance had been tampered with, and 43 minutes of footage had been deleted; fortunately there was video footage from another angle, showing that shortly before 3:30AM the day of the flight, an airport vehicle drove black bags up to the plane, and then loaded them (amazingly enough this was discovered by one of the flight attendants who spent hours reviewing the footage)
  • On the day that the flight was supposed to operate from Punta Cana to Toronto, a manager at Signature Flight Support in Toronto had allegedly contacted Pivot Airlines’ CEO, asking him about the status of this flight, and saying that the plane needed to go in for maintenance the next day; the Pivot Airlines CEO found this strange, and had never had that happen before

My take on the “Cocaine Cargo” documentary

If you have the time to watch this documentary, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the kind of investigative journalism that reminds you of how important this kind of work is. Here are some of my key takeaways:

  • The journalist featured in this series is really doing amazing work; the crew literally got freed while she was there filming a documentary, and the crew partly credits her for finally getting them out, and putting pressure on authorities
  • The Canadian government doesn’t come out of this looking very good in terms of taking care of its citizens, and the crew was even reportedly told that if they were Americans, they would have been allowed to leave much earlier
  • It’s 100% apparent that the entire crew is innocent; what a horrible, cruel shame that these people were robbed of eight months of their life, not to mention the fear and anxiety they had to suffer, fearing that they’d never be freed if they had to return to jail
  • International drug trafficking is an incredibly complex operation, and I can’t help but wonder to what extent the government was turning a blind eye; when the police came to the plane and only seized half of the cocaine, one wonders if that was a mistake (and they’re that incompetent), or if that was intentional
  • The charter guests were ultimately just a distraction in order to traffic drugs; the key people were the person who loaded the drugs in Punta Cana, and the person who was going to offload the drugs in Toronto (which seems to be a Signature Flight Support employee)
  • The whole basis of this charter was bizarre to begin with; Pivot Airlines’ CRJ isn’t in some sexy private jet configuration, but rather has 50 seats in a typical all-economy layout, so no one in their right mind would charter that kind of plane to fly four people to & from Punta Cana, as it’s less comfortable (and a lot more expensive) than just flying Air Canada business class
  • I’m curious how many of the charter guests knew that they were being used for this, as my assumption would be that at least one person knew exactly what was going on, while the rest of the people were just brought along for a vacation; there’s no benefit to more people knowing what’s going on, and ultimately the best way for this to be successful would be to actually make it look like a regular vacation
  • I don’t understand why the lawyer representing the passengers would choose to be interviewed on camera, when he comes across as such an idiot; he claims he never asked the passengers why they chartered a plane, or who paid for it, which is kind of a key detail (then again, that would have probably incriminated them, so…)

I hope Canada is taking this case seriously, and at least tries to bring charges against some of the people involved, from the guy who wired the money to pay for the charter, to the person at Signature Flight Support who was allegedly very concerned about the status of the flight, and said the plane would have to go in for maintenance upon arrival.

The Pivot Airlines CRJ-100ER cabin

Bottom line

Over 200kg of cocaine was discovered on a charter flight from the Dominican Republic to Canada, leading to an airline crew being detained abroad for nearly eight months. I had assumed all along that they had nothing to do with it (after all, they reported it), and it seems certain that this is correct.

An investigation has shown that a fake company was behind the charter, and several of the charter guests have drug trafficking charges. Furthermore, the duffel bags were loaded onto the plane in the middle of the night, and airport surveillance footage was even tampered with to cover this up. Then in Toronto, one airport worker was allegedly very concerned about the status of the flight. What a story…

What do you make of this drug bust situation?

Conversations (31)
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  1. Mike Guest

    Drug gangs are so powerful and connected they can place associates into key roles in whichever enterprises are needed to assist with smuggling gigs. If a signature maintenance guy gets nailed and jailed he gets replaced like a light bulb and on with the show. Governments are powerless to put a stop to this stuff.

  2. Jack Guest

    At first when listening to the two female passengers, I assumed they were all innocent like the crew. Then in the film it stated that all the passengers on the second flight knew each other and the one was part of the fake Trust real estate company who paid for their flight. They were mules, knowingly and I bet they will be spending many years in jail. I mean someone pays for your tickets on...

    At first when listening to the two female passengers, I assumed they were all innocent like the crew. Then in the film it stated that all the passengers on the second flight knew each other and the one was part of the fake Trust real estate company who paid for their flight. They were mules, knowingly and I bet they will be spending many years in jail. I mean someone pays for your tickets on a expensive charter flight and when asked about it, you state your lawyer tells you to not comment. All those passengers on that 2nd flight probably guilty.

    1. Brian Guest

      I thought this was an excellent investigative reporting. The interview with the two female passengers hit a red flag for me . When ask if they thought that they may be drug mules both denied it then one of the females says maybe the plane was a drug mule or it was being used as a mule . The other female then says Well its obvious the plane was because they found the drugs on the plane . Red flag for me

  3. DCharlie Guest

    North Americans are just living for the high all the time. What a sad state of affairs.

  4. Sara J Guest

    Thank you for posting the link to the television show. I watched the program and appreciated the quality of the reporting. I have been following Canadian stories more and learned about the ability of the Dominican Republic to hold someone with no charges for a year. It is something I will keep in mind in my travels.

    I have a friend who insists that "It won't happen to you." However, I don't listen to...

    Thank you for posting the link to the television show. I watched the program and appreciated the quality of the reporting. I have been following Canadian stories more and learned about the ability of the Dominican Republic to hold someone with no charges for a year. It is something I will keep in mind in my travels.

    I have a friend who insists that "It won't happen to you." However, I don't listen to those types of people, because they are the same people who won't help me if I were to be arrested.

  5. JB Guest

    How did you see the documentary? Is there a way I can watch it as well (I live in the U.S.)?

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ JB -- I had no issues watching it at the link posted without a VPN.

    2. John Guest

      Watched it here in Germany with no issues (surprisingly).

  6. michael Guest

    Ben,
    If the crew needed to stay there for 8 months and were not in jail and could not leave the island - I assume they stayed at a hotel? AirBnB? where? Did they get points? Did they get upgraded to suites? These are the details that we expect from your site :)

    -m

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ michael -- The airline rented a villa for them, so it sounds like there were no points or room upgrades, hah.

  7. Scudder Diamond

    Another updated post with no clarity as to what the actual updates are...

    1. Ben Schlappig OMAAT

      @ Scudder -- Sorry for the confusion, I always try to clarify this in the intro section. In this case I wrote "I wanted to share my updated take on this incident, now that I’ve seen this." Then the section with my take on the documentary is primarily what's new. I'll try to make this clearer going forward.

  8. James k Leyerle Guest

    Was able to view on the CTV website.

  9. OldBill Guest

    Did Pivot Airlines ever get its plane back? The previous article mentioned that this was their only plane.

  10. FLLFYER Guest

    Having worked in International Operation in the Caribbean for major carrier I can tell you this is fairly typical for the DR.

    Of course the security cam footage is missing, no surprise there.
    Corruption at the airport level (and even in the Aviation Dept) is so widespread in the Caribbean.

    We had numerous seizures out of the DR/Jamaica/Curacao amongst other locations. Of course Corporate Security involved - in none of the cases was...

    Having worked in International Operation in the Caribbean for major carrier I can tell you this is fairly typical for the DR.

    Of course the security cam footage is missing, no surprise there.
    Corruption at the airport level (and even in the Aviation Dept) is so widespread in the Caribbean.

    We had numerous seizures out of the DR/Jamaica/Curacao amongst other locations. Of course Corporate Security involved - in none of the cases was the crew found to be involved - most times they were completely unaware as this occurred below wing on the ground.

  11. John Guest

    What would you have done as the maintenance guy?

    On the one had you don’t want to be on a plane landing in Canada with $25 million in drugs. On the other hand if you say something the guys whose coke it is aren’t going to be happy. They will in fact be very very unhappy. With you.

  12. M. Webb Guest

    Ben - you failed to mention to terrifying and horrible treatment the crew received during those nine days of being held in jail.

    1. Kelley P Gold

      technically he did talk about that in his previous post on this incident... He did say this was just an update.

  13. Stanley Guest

    And to think that all this could be legal, run by Fortune 500 companies at maximum efficiency, and taxed to the hilt… all of a sudden there would be enough money to fund free healthcare for everyone!

  14. Maryland Guest

    The Canadian crew were scape goats until the the whole mess was swept up (bribes?) and the actors were far in the wind. Probably there are now no witnesses and the evidence is missing. Nobody will be further accused. Business as usual. Sadly for the crew this is a stain that might resurface because proving innocence is more difficult than proving guilt. Just my take.

    1. Mike Guest

      And an accurate one at that. Everything that can go wrong has a plan B because you just pay extra actors extra money. It is one long movie.

  15. Jim Guest

    How did three passengers with criminal records get allowed on a plane?

    1. Petri Diamond

      The article says that there were four passengers who had faced criminal charges. We do not know if they were ever convicted. Secondly, people who have actual criminal records fly every day, all over the world.

    2. AJO Member

      They bought a ticket, checked in and boarded, that's how.

  16. betterbub Gold

    Man imagine reporting drugs as you should and being detained for months on end

  17. Creditian Guest

    Latin Americans flew to North America and brought their "culture" as well.

    1. Wilo1 Guest

      Better writen: Latin Americans just supplying to the drug-addicted North Americans what they want!

    1. DenB Diamond

      If Ben's surmise is right (which I think it probably is) there's nothing Pivot Airlines did that was peciliar to their Canadian nationality. An American charter company could just as easily have accepted money for a charter and flown to Punta Cana. What the Dominican "justice" system did to this flight crew was unconscionable. But the fact that the Doninican government didn't cave to Canadian consular pressure? That is a very Canadian story.

  18. Eeerk Guest

    Seems illegal drugs and real estate are linked. Maybe if everyone would boycott illegal drugs they might find housing become more affordable as it is no longer being used as a laundering vehicle. Do less drugs, live inside.

    1. Wolfowitz Guest

      Or, they might find that less housing construction happens, thereby reducing supply and pushing up prices…

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Petri Diamond

The article says that there were four passengers who had faced criminal charges. We do not know if they were ever convicted. Secondly, people who have actual criminal records fly every day, all over the world.

5
DenB Diamond

If Ben's surmise is right (which I think it probably is) there's nothing Pivot Airlines did that was peciliar to their Canadian nationality. An American charter company could just as easily have accepted money for a charter and flown to Punta Cana. What the Dominican "justice" system did to this flight crew was unconscionable. But the fact that the Doninican government didn't cave to Canadian consular pressure? That is a very Canadian story.

5
Ben Schlappig OMAAT

@ Scudder -- Sorry for the confusion, I always try to clarify this in the intro section. In this case I wrote "I wanted to share my updated take on this incident, now that I’ve seen this." Then the section with my take on the documentary is primarily what's new. I'll try to make this clearer going forward.

2
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