MOSCOW — It sounds like a thriller: nearly half a ton of cocaine was hidden in bags at the Russian Embassy’s school in Buenos Aires before being loaded on a Russian government plane bound for Moscow.
Yet that’s exactly what happened in a recent sting run by Russia and Argentina to nab a drug ring.
Officials said Friday that the alleged ring lord, Andrei Kovalchuk, was arrested in Germany, but controversy is still swirling around the drug bust.
Russian and Argentine officials say they pooled efforts to catch the drug smugglers after at least 12 bags with cocaine with a street value of about $61 million were found at a Russian Embassy school in the Argentine capital.
Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich described the sting as “one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations that Argentina has faced.”
The investigation began after Victor Koronelli, the Russian ambassador to Argentina, and officers of Russia’s top security agency reported to Bullrich in December 2016 that they had suspicions about the diplomatic luggage found at the Russian school.
Once authorities confirmed that the bags contained drugs, they swapped cocaine for flour and placed a GPS to track the shipment.
In December, the bags were flown to Moscow, where its recipients were caught red-handed by the Russian authorities. Three Russian men were arrested in Moscow, and Argentine authorities arrested two Russian-Argentine men, one of them a police officer.
There have been some discrepancies, however, between the Russian and the Argentine versions of events.
Argentine officials said the bags contained 389 kilograms (860 pounds) of cocaine, while Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said 362 kilograms (798 pounds) of cocaine were seized.
Argentine officials tweeted pictures of a Russian government plane involved in the operation, but its owner, Russia’s state-controlled Rossiya company that operates the fleet of planes that carry President Vladimir Putin and top government officials, denied its involvement. Argentine officials then reaffirmed their statement.
Asked Friday about the plane controversy, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the ministry wouldn’t make comment pending the official probe.
Russian media claimed the Russian plane involved in the sting operation carried Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful secretary of Putin’s Security Council, on a visit to Buenos Aires.
Some commentators alleged that Patrushev could have been on a mission to extinguish the scandal caused by the Argentine officials’ discovery of nefarious activities in the Russian Embassy. The skeptics noted that the cocaine couldn’t have been brought into the heavily-guarded Embassy compound without Embassy officials’ help.
Zakharova angrily denied the allegations of collusion between Russian diplomats and drug smugglers, saying that a former technical staffer who was arrested on charges of involvement in the ring had access to the premises.
The Russian Embassy in Berlin said Friday that Kovalchuk, the suspected ringleader, was arrested on a Russian request sent via Interpol.
Berlin prosecutors said in a tweet that police had arrested a 49-year-old Russian citizen near the German capital Thursday on allegations that he had “formed a criminal organization with the aim of smuggling cocaine from Argentina to Russia.” They said a German court on Friday ordered that he be kept in custody.
Kovalchuk denied the accusations in an interview with the Russian business daily Kommersant, saying that he put coffee in the bags left at the embassy school.
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.