At least three gangs have struck deals to fly drugs to West Africa and from there to Europe, according to US indictments. One trafficker claimed he already had six aircraft flying. Another said he was managing five planes. Because there is no radar coverage over the ocean, big planes can cross the Atlantic virtually undetected.
"The sky's the limit," one Sierra Leone trafficker boasted to a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, according to court documents.
The new air route is remarkable because of the distances involved and the complexity of flying big jets, said Scott Decker, a criminology professor at Arizona State University who studies smuggling methods.
In the last year, a flurry of arrests has begun shedding light on how the air routes work. The cases are being prosecuted in a New York federal court because some of the drug was supposed to have been sent to the US.
"The quantity of cocaine distributed and the means employed to distribute it were extraordinary," prosecutors wrote in one case. They warned of a conspiracy to "spread vast quantities of cocaine throughout the world by way of cargo airplanes".