Canadian airliner was drug-smuggling front, Dominican prosecutors allege despite lack of evidence

Prosecutors admitted ‘we did not establish that they were the ones who carried the packages,’ and ‘we are not accusing those charged of having taken the drugs on the plane’

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A Canadian chartered airliner and its occupants were acting as a front for smuggling drugs into Toronto, Dominican Republic prosecutors alleged recently after a 210-kilogram stash of cocaine was found on the plane.

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They urged a judge to keep the crew and passengers in custody for at least 12 months as the case is investigated, charging they were part of an elaborate trafficking “façade.”

But lawyers for the Public Ministry offered up little actual evidence implicating the mostly Canadian group, who were arrested soon after the contraband was found hidden inside the jet’s “avionics bay.”

In fact, one of those crew members discovered the contraband and another reported the find, the judge hearing the group’s bail hearing acknowledged in a written, Spanish-language decision obtained by the National Post and translated.

Judge Francis Yojary Reyes Dilone ordered them released on bail, and they were freed just after the Easter weekend, though must stay in the Dominican Republic until the investigation is done.

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Pivot Airlines has been lobbying for their crew to be allowed to leave the country and say they face ongoing danger from drug traffickers until they can leave.

The judge’s decision sheds some light on the prosecution’s allegations against the Canadians, but little on the basis for those charges.

“The (passengers) served as a façade to make it appear that it was a private flight of people who were simply vacationing, when in fact their objective was to transport drugs from the Dominican Republic to abroad, specifically Toronto, Canada,” prosecutors told the Altagracia district court. “As a whole, the defendants arrived in the country with the sole purpose of trafficking from the Dominican Republic with a controlled substance.”

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But prosecutors admitted “we did not establish that they were the ones who carried the packages,” and that “we are not accusing those charged of having taken the drugs on the plane.”

The Ministry said, though, that the accused were accompanied by another, unnamed person who boarded the aircraft the day before.

That is “not on a mere whim, it’s not a fabricated story. This is the statements of the accused themselves,”  the prosecutor said without elaborating.

Pivot Airlines declined to comment on the allegations Thursday.

But in court, defence lawyers said the whole group should be released immediately for lack of evidence against them.

The passengers “don’t even have access to the area the drugs were found because it is restricted,” said an unnamed lawyer for the non-crew defendants.

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A lawyer for the Pivot employees said “there is no evidence to support that they were accomplices in the act.”

Dominican officials say that officers found about $25-million-worth in street value of cocaine inside the plane.
Dominican officials say that officers found about $25-million-worth in street value of cocaine inside the plane. Photo by Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas/Twitter

Judge Dilone noted that two crew members had found the contraband and reported it to the authorities and there was no evidence the other employees and passengers had access to the hiding spot, or any other connection to the drugs. Based on the principles of proportionality, favourability and reasonableness, he said he was imposing a less onerous “coercive measure” than requested by the prosecution.

The Bombardier-built CRJ-100 regional jet arrived in Punta Cana March 31, carrying potential investors being entertained by an Alberta company, Pivot says. It was supposed to leave April 5, when the drugs were found and the arrests made.

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The judge’s decision quoted the flight’s captain as saying he, his first officer, two flight attendants and a mechanic arrived late the afternoon of April 4 in Dominican Republic, the plane having been flown there by another crew.

He said he and his first officer were in the cockpit before the flight took off when the mechanic appeared and said he had discovered a black suitcase in the avionics bay and took a photograph of it. The captain said he informed Pivot’s vice president of operations, who alerted authorities, then asked all the crew and passengers to leave the plane.

He said he met officials who approached the plane and pointed out where the mechanic had found the bag. Officers eventually discovered another seven sacks there, all of which were packed with cocaine. “We feel like we did the right thing,” the pilot said.

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The mechanic confirmed that he had found the original black bag, noting “there should be nothing there, only cables.”

The merits of the Pivot case aside, the Dominican Republic’s legal system has a less than stellar reputation generally.

It ranked 94th out of 139 countries worldwide and 23 of 32 in Latin America and the Caribbean last year on the World Justice Project’s “rule of law index,” which measures various aspects of a country’s legal apparatus. It ranked lower on absence of corruption – 100th in the world – and criminal justice specifically, 96th.

The International Commission of Jurists described a raft of problems in a 2000 report, including severe backlogs, ineffective methods, corruption and a lack of resources. Most inmates in the Dominican Republic’s prisons are being held without trial or conviction and there is little respect for due process, the group said.



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