Romance with cocaine. 400 kg of Argentine powder caused a diplomatic scandal 

Romance with cocaine. 400 kg of Argentine powder caused a diplomatic scandal
According to the Argentine police, the mastermind behind the cocaine trafficking and Ambassador Viktor Koronelli could know each other Photo: The CrimeRussia

The high-profile ‘cocaine case’ was initially presented in the media as an example of efficient collaboration between secret services of two states in their struggle against the international drug trafficking. A few days later, many new details have popped-up with regards to the story involving 389 kg of pure Colombian cocaine and effectively turned it into a diplomatic scandal. The CrimeRussia was figuring out what could link the Russian Ambassador to Argentina, FSB, and Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, with 12 bags full of cocaine.

The ‘cocaine scandal’ involving the Russian embassy to Argentina has hit the global headlines. In the past, drug trafficking was sometimes ‘covered up’ by diplomatic institutions – for instance, in 2012, a Nigerian gang using diplomatic channels to smuggle cocaine to Ireland was busted; in 2012, the Italian police have arrested five people after discovering 40 kg of cocaine in diplomatic mail from Equador; 16 kg of the drug were delivered in the same year and in the same way from Mexico to the UN headquarters... However, diplomatic missions were never involved into the trafficking of almost half-ton of one of the most expensive drugs in the world – the black market cost of the intercepted shipment is estimated at €50–60 million.

At a press conference held on February 22, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Patricia Bullrich, Minister of Security of Argentina, provided these figures to the media.

“12 Queens”

According to the minister, a major anti-narcotics operation, dubbed “12 Queens” by the number of seized diplomatic valises, has started on December 13, 2016. On that evening, Viktor Koronelli, Russian Ambassador to Argentina, has informed the Argentine secret services about valises with white powder found in a back room of the embassy school and ready for shipping. However, Kommersant newspaper has found out that the cocaine was discovered by the embassy personnel a few days before the notification of the Argentine authorities. The superintendent has initially discovered it, than the security service opened one of the valises and found suspicious white powder inside. After the ambassador’s report to Moscow, specialists of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation have started off for Buenos Aires, performed an analysis, and confirmed that the bags contained a drug of very high quality – 88% of cocaine mixed with 12% of levamisole added to enhance the effect (levamisole stimulates the sympathetic nervous system).

According to Infobae.com, operatives of the Anti-Drug Department of the Argentine National Gendarmerie have arrived to the school located half-kilometer from the embassy at 2 a.m. and entered it through the back door to avoid encounters with its personnel and teachers living in the same building. The officers used a key provided to them by the ambassador.

Clarín Policiales newspaper reports, citing Patricia Bullrich, that the police operation had lasted for an hour and half. Upon determining that the valises had indeed contained 389 kg of cocaine, the officers went to an all-night supermarket in the neighborhood, purchased 400 kg of flour, replaced the drug in the bags with it, and attached GPS transponders to the valises. Around 3 a.m., the operatives have covertly left the school building.

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Argentine gendarmes seize the cocaine in 2016
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Federal judge Julián Ercolini, prosecutor Eduardo Taiano, and Diego Iglesias, Director of the Drug Crimes Attorney General's Office, have opened an investigation for this fact. From the very beginning, the inquest was international and highly classified. The persons who could be potentially involved into the cocaine trafficking were identified and put under surveillance, including eavesdropping on telephone conversations. Bullrich has emphasized that the purpose of the investigation was to uncover the entire drug trafficking channel into Russia and Europe; she named 12 Queens “the most complicated and extravagant operation” ever carried out by Argentine secret services. She noted that drugs were smuggled from Argentina and other Latin American countries to Europe and Russia more than once.

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Patricia Bullrich at the press conference 

However, due to some unknown reasons, it took a year to arrest members of this criminal community. According to the Minister of Security of Argentina, the smugglers had attempted to remove the cocaine from the embassy school at least 4 times. The accomplices had tried to export it from the country by sea and by air – but every time the police had secretly blocked the shipping.

In early December, as a result of arrangements made between the Argentine and Russian secret services, the flour has been shipped in diplomatic valises to Moscow under control of Argentine police and customs officers.

Patricia Bullrich announced at the press conference that five suspects have been detained – three in Russia and two in Argentina. An international warrant has been issued against the sixth suspect considered the group leader by the investigation and reportedly residing in Germany.

At the first stage of investigation, the law enforcement authorities have identified the person who had used the school for drug storage. It was Ali Abyanov, a former embassy superintendent; he has returned back to Russia in August 2016, upon the expiry of his contract. His wife Gyulnara had reportedly worked at the embassy school as a teacher. According to Ambassador Viktor Koronelli, Abyanov could park his official car in the school garage. Apparently, the cocaine was transported to the garage by that car and then brought to the back room using service passages.

On December 13, FSB operatives have arrested in Moscow the suspected drug traffickers: Ali Abyanov, Ishtimir Khudzhamov, and Vladimir Kalmykov. Khudzhamov and Kalmykov have delivered the bags received in the airport to the residence of Abyanov at 11 Vasilisy Kozhinoi street.

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Arrest in Moscow in December 2017 

According to Republic, a criminal case under part 5 of Article 228.1 and part 4 of Article 229.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Smuggling and Illegal Sale or Dispatch of Narcotic Drugs on an especially large scale) has been instituted by the 3rd Division of the Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation. All the suspects have been officially charged and remanded in custody for two months by Tverskoy District Court of Moscow; in mid-February, the detention term was extended until April.

Immediately after the shipment of the fake cocaine to Moscow, policeman Ivan Blizniuk and mechanic Alexander Chikalo (both having a dual Russian-Argentine citizenship) have been arrested in Argentina. According to the investigation, they were responsible for the drug transportation logistics.

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Arrest of Ivan Blizniuk in Buenos Aires 

Some Argentine media outlets had named Alexander Chikalo a security officer of Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires; however, according to RBC Group, since January 2017, he has been a senior mechanic at CA Group specializing in metallic roofing and finishing systems.

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Alexander Chikalo 

Earlier Alexander Chikalo, a marine mechanic from Vladivostok, had worked in the oil tanker maintenance industry for several years. According to his LinkedIn profile, since December 2008 and until March 2016, Chikalo was an engineer at Ultrapetrol S.A.

Ivan Blizniuk is a much more prominent figure. According to the Argentine media, the 35-year-old suspect has been living in Argentina since the age of 18. He is a licensed specialist in marine and port security. Later Blizniuk has got a higher linguistic education at a Russian university. In addition to the Russian and Spanish, he knows several other languages.

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Ivan Blizniuk with Argentine cadets during a trip to Russia 

Blizniuk had served in the Argentine police for some 10 years and advanced through ranks to a senior inspector in Buenos Aires. According to Ambassador Viktor Koronelli, Blizniuk had handled the liaison between the police and several diplomatic missions, including the Russian embassy. Being fluent in Russian, Blizniuk had repeatedly communicated with Russian diplomats during his service in the police – for instance, on October 16, 2016, he acted as a translator at a meeting between supreme functionaries of the Ministry of Security of Argentina and representatives of the Russian MIA. The meeting was held in Barracas and dedicated to the security at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games.

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Ivan Blizniuk at the meeting with representatives of the Russian MIA in 2016 

In recent years, Ivan Blizniuk had visited Russia three times as a member of delegations of cadets of the Buenos Aires Institute of Public Safety where, according to La Nacion, he used to work as a tutor for several years. For instance, in 2015, he had accompanied a police delegation to the St. Petersburg MIA University to take a counter-terrorism course; in 2016, he was in charge of a group of cadets taking a course entitled “Acquisition of Skills in Patrol and Inspection Service” at Kikot’ Moscow MIA University. His last visit to Russia was in June 2017; a report on the delegation reception, including photos showing Blizniuk, is available at the university web site.

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Lieutenant general Kalinichenko, Head of Kikot’ Moscow MIA University, awards the internship certificate to Ivan Blizniuk 

Ivan Blizniuk has been detained by his colleagues in early February, immediately after his return from Rome where the ex-policeman had vacationed with his wife. After the arrest, the secret services have searched the office of Blizniuk in the municipal police school. The CrimeRussia wrote earlier that large amounts of cash in dollars and euros, as well as gold jewelry and valuables, were seized in the course of searches performed in his residence.

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Mysterious “Señor K”

Despite the bravura reports about a successful operation, the Argentine law enforcement authorities admit that only second-rate participants of the large-scale drag trafficking scheme have been captured so far.

The Ministry of Security of Argentina names some Andrei Kovalchuk, referred to as “Señor K” in published transcripts of wiretapped telephone conversations, the mastermind behind this scheme.

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According to Patricia Bullrich, the businessman permanently resides in Hamburg (according to Rosbalt.ru – in Berlin). He had visited Argentina 11 times in the last years, both for business purposes and for leisure. The Argentine authorities believe that Kovalchuk was responsible for cocaine acquisitions in adjacent countries. In particular, Uruguay was mentioned several times in the intercepted telephone conversations; the local police has launched its own inquest after the publications in the Argentine media.

The information on Andrei Kovalchuk is very inconsistent. According to La Nacion, he is a trade representative of Habanos Tobacco Company and had frequent business trips to Argentina. Leonardo Golovanov, Head of the Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots in Argentina, says that Kovalchuk had represented Bossner Cigars brand used by German company Golden Mile Gmb. Its director Konstantin Loskutnikov said in an interview to RTVD OstWest TV Channel that some high-ranked Gazprom functionary had introduced Kovalchuk to him as a colonel of secret services. 

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Meetings of Ivan Blizniuk and Andrei Kovalchuk. Police footage
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Detained Ali Abyanov, who, according to his own words, used to work with Kovalchuk at the Russian embassy in Berlin, names him a very influential person having connections at the highest diplomatic level. Abyanov believes that Kovalchuk had been working for a long time in the Security Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and calls him “nearly a general”. The Argentine media suppose that “Señor K” may still remain a governmental official because he said in a conversation with Blizniuk that his next trip to Argentina would be made at the governmental expense. Aleksander Konstanyants, an attorney for Abyanov, claims that Kovalchuk is a high-ranked undercover officer. According to Konstanyants, Kovalchuk has gained Abyanov’s trust posing as a top-level diplomat.

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Several days after the scandal, on February 27, Andrei Kovalchuk has broken the silence and made a statement via his attorney Vladimir Vyshenkov. Kovalchuk claims that he is running a legal business exporting coffee, cigars, and brandy from Argentina to Germany. According to him, the bags stored in the school had contained the above goods; the delivery of these goods to him has been delayed for a year under false pretenses. Kovalchuk also claims that he has sales receipts and other consignment documentation for all the goods purchased in Argentina in 2016. According to the lawyer, his client is ready to give testimonies – but not in Russia where he has been arrested in absentia. After the issuance on an Interpol warrant against Kovalchuk, the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany has joined the investigation – hopefully, this expedites his return to Russia.

The Argentine authorities insist that Kovalchuk had financed the cargo shipment and paid remuneration to the smugglers – according to the police, this indicates his leading role in the criminal community. Based on the wiretapped conversations between Blizniuk and Chikalo, the mysterious drug lord wasn’t too generous.

Taking that the cocaine acquisition cost in Uruguay or Columbia was $1.5 thousand per kg, while its sale price in Germany and the Netherlands, where the drug, according to the investigation, had also been transported by Kovalchuk, was $20 and 25 thousand respectively, Chikalo, based on his own words, had received mere $10 thousand “for assistance”. Blizniuk did not provide any specific amount but had also expressed his displeasure with the remuneration. It appears from the intercepted conversation that Kovalchuk possesses similar diplomatic resources for drug trafficking in Uruguay as well.

“Just imagine how much ‘shit’ have they shipped through this channel earlier?!” – Chikalo says to Kovalchuk in a conversation. Interestingly, this conversation implies that Kovalchuk, according to his own words, was personally familiar with Viktor Koronelli, Russian Ambassador to Argentina.

Our
notes

Viktor Koronelli is the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Argentina. He descends from a noble Spanish family. An ancestral diplomat. His ancestor Antonio Koronelli has joined the military and later diplomatic service with the Russian Empire in 1770 and held military and diplomatic posts for almost 50 years; Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov has awarded him the Order St. Anna II Class. Viktor Koronelli was born in 1958 in Moscow; his mother Tatiana Koronelli was a Professor of Microbiology at the Moscow State University, while his father Viktor Koronelli was a colonel of the Soviet Army. Has graduated from the Moscow State University, a Candidate of Geography. Since 1998, at the diplomatic service. In 2005—2007, was a Consul Ambassador at the Russian embassy to Chili. In 2008—2011, was the head of a division and Deputy Director of the Latin American Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Since July 2011, has been the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to Argentina.


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Viktor Koronelli 

One of the intercepted conversations implies that “Señor K” had a conflict with the ambassador, which had constrained the drug trafficking. However, Blizniuk says that everything is going to be fine soon – the ambassador is about to be replaced and the things resume their natural course. It is necessary to note that Koronelli vehemently denies the personal knowledge of Kovalchuk in an interview to Kommersant and claims that he has heard this name for the first time only after the beginning of the joint operation of the Russian and Argentine secret services.

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The cocaine scandal has erupted in February and attracted public attention to the signature reaction of Russian officials and governmental structures to high-profile incidents. Shortly after an incident, the protection mechanism of the agency involved into the scandal is activated through a categorical denial of the published information – even if the facts are unquestionable.

This time, after a publication in The Telegraph claiming that Nikolai Patrushev, former FSB Director and current Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, could be involved into the controlled shipment of 400 kg of cocaine from Argentina to Moscow, the Security Council has made a rebuttal stating that the dates of the official Patrushev’s visit to Argentina do not coincide with the drug delivery date provided by the Argentine authorities and that “the aircraft of the Secretary of the Security Council does not deliver diplomatic mail”.

However, the airplane that has transported the cocaine attracted public attention again. The photo report and video materials published in the official Twitter of the Argentine National Gendarmerie show the aircraft number. It became known that it serves national leaders and was used by Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev shortly before the trip to Argentina.

After an RBC publication about the usage of Il-96-300 airplane with registration number RA-96023 of Russia Special Air Squadron for the controlled shipment of the cargo to Moscow – because, according to Russianplanes.net, this aircraft has made a flight to Argentina on these very days – this web site has been removed. Its owner claims that he has done this on his own accord. However, despite the confirmation of the flight data by Flightradar24 Internet Service, Elena Krylova, an official representative of the Presidential Executive Office, has refuted this information and suggested that the pictures showing the aircraft number were photoshopped. In other words, she has accused the Argentine authorities of falsifying evidence in a criminal case – because these photos constitute such an evidence.

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Photo of Il-96 with registration number RA-96023 taken by an Argentine blogger in the Buenos Aires Airport in early December 

On February 28, the Argentine National Gendarmerie have confirmed the authenticity of these pictures; in addition, Patricia Bullrich had earlier said at the press conference that the delivery was jointly arranged by the Argentine and Russian secret services. In his interview to Kommersant, Ambassador Viktor Koronelli has evaded a direct question about the cargo delivery to Moscow – he said that he has no authorization to comment the special operation and suggested the journalists to “address the FSB”.

Maria Zakharova, Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has also refuted media reports that the cocaine was supposed to be delivered with diplomatic mail. She has noted that “diplomatic mail if formed by diplomats”, while the employee involved into the cocaine storage had neither a diplomatic passport nor access to the diplomatic mail. Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, has sided with her and called the cocaine scandal “fake news” and vicious intrigues. The Russian embassy to Argentina is emotionally arguing on Facebook with Maksim Mironov, Professor at IE Business School residing in Buenos Aires. Mironov wrote in his blog that his children study at the embassy school and he is well aware of its security measures that were tightened a few years ago. Mironov claims that the cocaine could not be brought into the school building without the knowledge of the protection service and diplomats. The embassy, in turn, accuses the professor of prejudiced attitude and “anti-Russian stance”.

The commentators ignore the published transcripts of intercepted conversations implying that diplomats could be involved into the drug trafficking. In addition to Koronelli, the wiretapped conversations mention Oleg Vorobiev, First Secretary of the Embassy, nicknamed Vorobei (Sparrow) by Blizniuk and Kovalchuk.

Clarín has published the transcript of a recorded conversation where Kovalchuk asks Vorobiev to give him an embassy car to deliver “12 boxes of brandy” to the airport – and Vorobiev, asking to excuse him, declines to avoid displeasing the ambassador.

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Oleg Vorobiev 

Professor Mironov claims that Oleg Vorobiev handles security issues at the diplomatic mission. According to Koronelli, his deputy for security has access to all key mission facilities, including the school. It is unclear why the person of Oleg Vorobiev hasn’t attracted the attention of the Argentine law enforcement authorities yet. The CrimeRussia will continue monitoring this story.

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