Crime at South American Airports: Events That Are Not Acts of Illicit Interference

Crime at South American Airports: Events That Are Not Acts of Illicit Interference

Thousands of passengers arrive at and depart from multiple airports in South America on a daily basis. Most of these passengers are travelling for tourism, business or personal and family reasons, but a tiny percentage of them travel with criminal intent. This small percentage can impact on numerous other passengers who become exposed to dangerous situations by unscrupulous people seeking to take advantage of them. Ricardo Santiago Sferco discusses various crimes that are committed at airports in South America.

For many people, airports are glamorous, exciting places, where everything is sophisticated and luxurious. But it is almost guaranteed that within that environment there are people who are not simply focusing on catching their flight, and whose intentions may be anything but innocent.

The crimes that are frequently committed at airports in South America can generally be divided into two categories: those that are committed by passengers (trafficking, etc.) and those committed against passengers (theft, etc.). Offences committed by passengers, mainly on departing flights, are most likely to be detected at the security checkpoint, while crimes committed against passengers are more likely to be prevented – or at least justice served after a crime is committed – using surveillance.

Crimes Committed by Passengers

Narcotic Drugs Trafficking

In South America there are several countries that produce cocaine hydrochloride. This product, which can be purchased for approximately USD $5,000 (approx. £3,800) per kg, is then taken to Europe, Oceania or the Far East, where it is often sold on for more than USD $50,000 (approx. £38,000). Passengers smuggle drugs across borders in a number of ways: by carrying them in their hold baggage; in hand luggage; attaching them to the body, or by carrying them inside the body in latex capsules Occasionally, traffickers alter the form of the drug in order to conceal it in luggage to avoid detection at checkpoints. For example, they may convert the drug into liquid in order to conceal it in containers of innocuous-looking consumer products such as shampoo, or combine the drug with resins and make rigid suitcases from the mixture. They may also impregnate clothing with drugs, and conceal drugs in suitcases with false bottoms.

As well as cocaine, passengers – mainly Europeans – transport designer drugs (Ecstasy, methamphetamine and LSD are the most common) into South America. Experience tells us that the illicit trafficking of drugs in South America is carried out by people who dedicate themselves exclusively to this type of activity, and are therefore very experienced and highly professional. It is also common for these experts to take advantage of the economic needs of others and involve them in this crime.

Fauna and Flora Trafficking

South America has a wide variety of fauna and flora species, many of which are considered unique to the region. This leads to collectors all over the world wanting to possess their own specimens of these species. Many of these are in danger of extinction, so very high sums of money are paid, which results in a very prosperous illegal market. Smugglers try to conceal these species in various ways, mainly inside checked baggage, in order to avoid detection at security checkpoints. Wildlife that is trafficked includes exotic birds (most of which are protected by international conventions), spiders, snakes, small primates and different species of turtles.

Cultural Property Trafficking

Works of art, such as paintings by renowned artists, sculptures and other cultural expressions, mostly obtained illegally, are regularly transported by air to be sold on the Black Market, usually to private collections.

Archaeological and Palaeontological Trafficking

Many people confuse palaeontology and archaeology – possibly because they both involve digging up objects from the earth! However, it is important to clarify that they are not the same: Palaeontology is the study of natural history (e.g. animal fossils and plants) while archaeology is the study of ancient cultures and civilisations via the physical remnants of human activity. One aspect of archaeology (as a subset of anthropology, the study of human societies) is the study of ancient human remains. In other words, archaeology studies prehistoric life styles – but has nothing to do with fossils!

South America is rich in both paleontological and archaeological specimens. With regards to palaeontology, in the south of the Argentine Republic there are large areas of fossils, while in several other countries, archaeological remnants of pre-Hispanic civilisations are found. Private museums and collectors pay large sums of money for this type of specimen, which forms part of a country’s cultural heritage.

Usually, traffickers conceal or camouflage the specimens inside checked or hand baggage and attempt to evade control officers’ questions by claiming that are geological samples for their own research and study.

Foreign Exchange Trafficking

Most country tax regulations allow international passengers to carry currency with them, either in cash, traveller’s cheques, coins, or small gold ingots to a value that does not exceed USD $10,000. When a passenger carries currency on their person or in their luggage (usually hand baggage, although there are occasions that it can be detected in hold baggage) that exceeds what is permitted, experience indicates that this situation is the result of a commercial transaction that has not been declared to the tax authorities. It also may be the case that the currency is the result of an illegal activity, or is being transported in order to finance an illegal activity (e.g. the purchase of narcotic drugs in another country for its subsequent traffic and marketing). There are also documented cases of passengers who have tried to board an aircraft or who have arrived in another country carrying counterfeit money.

dog with baggage

Weapons Trafficking

Trafficking weapons, ammunition and explosives is globally the second most profitable illicit activity after drug trafficking. In the aviation industry this kind of activity is generally limited to weapons of high value or collectables. There are also documented cases of passengers who, through ignorance of the legal frameworks, carry undeclared weapons in their baggage, sometimes as a gift or as part of a family inheritance.

Human Trafficking

While there is significant progress in the fight against this scourge around the world, it still exists. From the airports of South America there is movement of persons for purposes of exploitation. According to the report on trafficking in persons in the month of June 2017 by the State Department of the Government of the United States of North America, this modern slavery system is carried out for the purposes of:

  • Sexual trafficking of adults
  • Sexual trafficking of children
  • Forced adult labour
  • Bonded labour or debt bondage
  • Domestic servitude
  • Forced child labour
  • Unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers

woman in shower

We could also include within this category the illegal adoption of babies by citizens of foreign countries. This activity usually involves the purchase of a new-born, and the involvement of an ‘official’ who registers the adoption in order to provide a cloak of legality. However, in the majority of cases, that new-born was stolen from its mother or acquired under false pretences. It is usual for the adoptive parents, even though they have paid for the adoption, to believe that the adoption is legal.

Paraguay airport strip


Authorities regularly detect various types of smuggling at airports in South America, both on arrival and departure. This activity is mainly related to deficiencies or prohibitions of certain products in a country, and therefore smuggled products have a very high cost compared with other countries. Smuggling activities involve a wide variety of goods, for example:

  • Medicines for human use
  • Medicines for veterinary use
  • Clothing
  • Cigarettes
  • Electronics (laptops, tablets, cell phones, etc.)
  • Cosmetic items
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Electronics components
  • Watches

Fraudulent Documents

Passengers regularly attempt to exit or enter South American countries using fraudulent passports or entry visas. With technological advances, false documents are now very good quality, requiring immigration authorities to be extremely attentive and to have qualified, well-trained staff to detect forgeries. Passengers who use fraudulent documents may have a variety of motives for doing so, including escaping volatile political conditions, or because they have criminal records that would prohibit them from exiting or entering certain countries.


Passengers are regularly caught shoplifting from duty-free shops in many South American airports. Items normally include perfumes, cosmetics, small electronic items, glasses, pens, watches and lighters.

In addition to committing above-mentioned crimes, perpetrators often have legal impediments that are discovered during immigration control, and which prevent them departing from or entering a particular country, or are the subject of a request for international arrest by INTERPOL.

Crimes Against Passengers

As well as being the perpetrators, passengers can also be the victims of crime at airports, both on departure and arrival. The most common being:

Robbery or Theft

Passengers can be victims of robbery or theft in various ways:

  • During departure or arrival, ramp services personnel have been known to open passengers’ bags and remove belongings of value.
  • Operating in most airports, not only in South America, are bands of pickpockets, opportunists who take advantage of moments of distraction to take any bag or other belonging not being closely guarded by their owner.
  • Unauthorised taxi drivers take advantage of passengers’ lack of experience by initially offering them a low rate but end up charging much more later, or stealing their belongings.
  • Although it is not a very common crime, robberies involving weapons such as knives or firearms do occur at airports.

False Currency

Passengers can be victims of those distributing false currency. This crime usually involves employees of banks or exchange houses, waiters at restaurants or bars, and taxi drivers. It is a crime that is difficult for authorities to resolve because normally it is some time after the transaction takes place that the crime is detected, and often the passenger does not remember where the money was received.

Insider Smuggling

This is a type of crime that is not very common, although past records prove that it has happened. Airline employees are in a prime position to smuggle goods in a way that is not easily detected: they simply send a bag to be loaded on board an aircraft ‘on behalf’ of an innocent passenger – without their consent but with the correct corresponding label. Of course, that baggage could contain any form of illicit item, from narcotics or explosives to electronics, perfumes and watches. This type of operation requires another insider at the arrival destination who removes the extra luggage (before it is delivered to the baggage carrousel) in such way as to avoid controls by the authorities.

There are other crimes that are committed by airport employees and that target passengers. For example:

  • The removal of stolen items from the airport security restricted zones inside the passenger’ baggage, or
  • The exchange of counterfeit money.
  • Employees also commit certain other crimes that do not involve passengers, such as:
  • The delivery of narcotics into airport security restricted zones to be sold to other employees.
  • The delivery of narcotics into airport security restricted zones to be hidden on board an aircraft for transport to another country.
  • The removal of narcotics from a security restricted zone after they have arrived on an aircraft.
  • The theft of company property (money or other items).

In summary, in South American airports, authorities must be on permanent alert in order to detect crime, and to deal with perpetrators in accordance with local laws. It is noted that crimes at airports in South America are similar to the ones reported at many airports around the world. However, each individual airport will be dealing with its own unique brand of crime, which will have developed based on the needs and resources of the local population, and on anthropological factors such as environment and politics.

Ricardo Santiago Sferco is a citizen of the Republic Argentina with 27 years of experience in commercial aeronautical activities. He specialises in airport security, transport of dangerous goods by air, and supply chain, cargo and mail security. He has been teaching courses on these topics since 2001 and may be contacted at:

Ricardo Santiago Sferco