Argentina: Drug seizure at Russian embassy leads to arrests

BUENOS AIRES: A former Russian diplomatic official and an Argentine police officer were among those arrested in connection with a large cocaine seizure at the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires that prompted a yearlong investigation into an international drug ring, officials said Thursday.

Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said the 860 pounds (389 kilograms) of cocaine were hidden inside luggage that was seized in December 2016. Authorities on Wednesday arrested Russian-Argentine citizens Alexander Chikalo, who is suspected of being in charge of the logistics, and police officer Ivan Blizniouk, who is accused of providing contacts to jump through customs controls.

The investigation began after Victor Koronelli, the Russian ambassador to Argentina, and three members of the Russian federal security service reported to Bullrich that they had suspicions about the diplomatic luggage found at a school that is annexed to the embassy.

Once authorities confirmed that there were drugs inside the 16 pieces of luggage, they devised a plan to catch the criminals: They swapped cocaine for flour and placed a GPS to track the luggage.

"This has been one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations that Argentina has faced", Bullrich said at a press conference.

"At 3 am we had to send people from the border police to buy the 389 kilograms of flour to the central market (in Buenos Aires) because no one had 389 kilograms in a warehouse," she said. "The drugs never traveled to Russia. Only the flour traveled."

The luggage was flown to Russia in 2017. Bullrich said three Argentine customs officials traveled to Russia to monitor the delivery, and that Ishtimir Khudzhmov and Vladimir Kalmykov, were arrested when they went to pick up the cargo.

A suspect, who Bullrich only referred to as "K," was in charge of buying the drug, and introducing it to the embassy in Argentina. He is still at large in Germany and is wanted under an international arrest warrant.

The logistics were also coordinated by former embassy official Ali Abyanov, who was arrested in his Moscow apartment.

Authorities said the drugs have a street value in Russia of about $61 million.