Brazil Detains 8 Suspected of Transporting Cocaine in Private Jets

Published: 04 July 2024

WhatsApp Image 2024-07-02 at 18.23.12 7One of the aircraft seized duriing operation Terra Fértil (Source: Brazilian police)

By Eduardo Goulart

Brazil’s Federal Police detained eight individuals on Tuesday as part of a broader operation against drug traffickers who have used private jets to transport cocaine worth billions of Brazilian reals across the continent, as well as to Europe and Africa.

Operation Terra Fértil (Fertile Land) saw 280 officers execute 80 search warrants in seven states across the country. In addition to the arrests, police seized multiple aircraft, vehicles, and watercraft used by the traffickers.

Federal police estimate that the group has moved more than R$5 billion (US$880 million) worth of product over the past five years. The traffickers used shell companies to launder their illicit gains. “They registered luxury properties and vehicles under these companies’ names,” explained Felipe Garcia, the lead investigator for Operation Terra Fértil, in an interview with OCCRP on Thursday.

Garcia further told OCCRP that officers seized two aircraft, approximately 30 luxury cars, and a boat. Investigators also identified cryptocurrency investments made by the suspects, though the total amount has yet to be determined.

Another strategy employed by the ring was the use of “straw men” as company shareholders. “Typically, these shareholders’ previous jobs paid extremely low wages. Some even received social benefits,” Garcia added.

A source from within the Federal Police confirmed to OCCRP that the gang’s leader, Ronald Roland, was among those arrested. According to the source, the investigation began in late 2021 after Roland purchased a house in a luxury condominium in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais. Police grew suspicious of the lavish parties held there, which always featured guests arriving in high-end vehicles.

Search and seizure warrants were also executed against Roland’s wife, Andreza Lorena de Lima Joel, and pilot Pablito Baena Castilho. On Andreza's Instagram, she has shared videos and photos of trips abroad with her husband to destinations such as Dubai, the Maldives, and Paris.

OCCRP found that Roland’s name appears in the records of three aircraft with Brazilian registrations. According to documents from the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC), he is the operator of these planes. His wife is also listed as the owner of another aircraft. Pilot Castilho also owns a plane and operates the aviation company Pablito Baena Castilho Aviation.

Since at least 2013, police have investigated Roland’s connection to narcos who have used aircraft to traffick their drug loads abroad. In August 2013, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sent a letter to Brazil’s Federal Police, stating that it was investigating “cocaine smuggling activities by a group of Brazilian pilots,” among them Ronald Roland.

Two years later, the Federal Police launched Operation Dona Bárbara, targeting Brazilians responsible for sending cocaine from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to Mexican cartels. Roland was one of the investigation’s targets.

In 2017, he was the subject of Operation Veraneio, another police investigation into narco jet activity. And in 2019, Roland was a person of interest in Operation Flak. According to the police, he was linked to a criminal organization that smuggled Bolivian and Colombian cocaine to Brazil. The drugs would then be loaded onto planes and sent off all over the world to Venezuela, Honduras, Suriname, the United States, Africa, and Europe.

According to a police source, Roland was arrested several times during these operations but spent little time behind bars. In April 2024, he was fined for refusing to present ANAC inspection agents with documents for one of his aircraft, which would confirm its involvement in Operation Flak. The fine amounted to about $280.

Neither Roland, nor his wife, nor Castilho have responded to OCCRP’s emails requesting comments.