Brazil, France launch joint drug searches on flights

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Brazilian and French police this week launched an unprecedented joint screening all passengers on selected flights from Sao Paulo in a bid to stem a worrying inflow of cocaine into Europe, a French official said Thursday.

All 750 passengers and crew boarding three flights to Paris -- two by Air France and one by partner Dutch carrier KLM -- were taken aside Wednesday by officers at Sao Paulo airport for a body frisk while their carry-on and checked luggage were inspected by hand and sniffer dogs.

The French police liaison officer in France's Sao Paulo consulate -- who requested not to be identified because of security concerns -- told reporters the occupants of two Brazilian TAM flights from Paris to Sao Paulo were also thoroughly checked.

The officer said France initiated the unusual operation as an "experiment" to gauge the extent of drug trafficking between Brazil and Europe, and hopefully "upset" established smuggling routes used by organized drug gangs.

According to the officer, since 2008 Brazil has replaced Colombia and Venezuela to become the principle origin for narcotics entering France, accounting for 40 percent of the eight tons of cocaine seized since then.

"In 2009, at Roissy (the Charles de Gaulle international airport in Paris) of the 250 'mules' arrested there were around 60 who came from Brazil, and of those 60 some 90 percent came from Sao Paulo," he said.

So far this year, 30 other "mules," or drug smugglers, have been arrested at the Paris airport, he said. Twelve of them came from Brazil, 10 of them from Sao Paulo.

"Over the past two years, the flights from Sao Paulo are very problematic," he said.

While the Sao Paulo airport checks turned up relatively little -- a Peurvian woman carrying 35,000 dollars in cash she could not explain, and four kilos of amphetamines detected by sniffer dogs in baggage on another flight going between Peru and Japan via Brazil -- the French officer said it was only an initial step.

"There are a dozen reasons why we didn't come up with more," he said.

"We weren't lucky. Maybe there were leaks," he said, explaining that preparations started a month ago involved scores of police and airport workers.

The limited number of Brazilian police available to carry out the searches also meant initial plans to scan passengers for swallowed condoms full of drugs had to be abandoned.

But the French police liaison officer said Brazilian officers had been encouraged by the test, and an evaluation was being made on whether to repeat the thorough checks in the future.

Flight schedules were not delayed for the operation, but passengers were asked to join boarding lines 20 minutes earlier than usual to permit the checks to be carried out.

© 2010 AFP

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