Report Says Armenia a Transit Point for Drugs Smuggled to Europe, Malaysia

Published: 08 January 2016



By Marine Madatyan

Brazilian resident Malika Aboussena shared a photo of her friend Rafal Zelbert on Facebook and wrote: “Beautiful eyes; where are you now?”

Zelbert didn’t answer, but Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) can.

According to the NSS:

“On Nov. 12, based on data received, employees of Armenia’s National Security Service twice examined Rafal Zelbert, a Polish citizen born in 1980, who had passed through the ‘nothing to declare’ customs exit at Yerevan’s Zvartnots Airport after arriving in Armenia on a Sao Paulo-Dubai-Yerevan flight. He had tried to smuggle, with the intent to sell, a particularly large amount of drugs.”

The Zelbert incident is the fifth case of alleged cocaine smuggling to be reported in Armenia in 2015. NSS employees say they found 13 kilograms of cocaine, with a street value of US$ 4 million, in Zelbert’s luggage.

Aboussena, in a Facebook exchange with, says she knew nothing about any drug trafficking. “We were here together in Brazil. I didn’t know that he was going there. We were planning to go back to Netherlands together where he lives,” she wrote.

The NSS investigation is continuing.

Cocaine smuggling got off to an early start in 2015.

In January, agents of the NSS arrested Alexander Cordova and Maria Alvarado after they arrived in Armenia from a Lima-Sao Paolo-Abu Dhabi-Yerevan flight. According to law enforcement, they had tried to smuggle in 2.7 kilograms of cocaine.

A few days later, Argentine citizen Alejandro Joel Torres was arrested at Zvartnots Airport after arriving from Sao Paolo, allegedly with 2.6 kilograms of cocaine.

Prosecutors moved swiftly. The two Peruvians, Cordova and Alvarado, were sentenced to 15 years by an Armenian court, while Torres, the Argentinian, got 13 years.

The NSS, in a recent report, notes two primary drug routes via Armenia: one is from Latin America to Turkey and then on to Europe; the other is from Iran to the UAE and then on to Malaysia.  The cocaine confiscated in the January cases was headed for Turkey, according to the report.

On Feb. 12, Malek Abas Garib and Al-Shaer Hasan Abdo, ethnic Arabs with Bulgarian citizenship, were arrested by the NSS at Zvartnots Airport. The NSS says they were carrying around 4.8 kilograms of suspected cocaine. The pair were allegedly trying to transfer the drugs to Turkey via a Yerevan-Istanbul flight. A third suspect, Firas Malek Wehbe, was sentenced to 13 years by the Armenian court in connection with the case.

The fourth and fifth attempts to smuggle in cocaine, again from Latin America, were reported in November. According to law enforcement, Ukraine national Ilina Shelever and Zelbert, the Polish national, attempted to smuggle in around 3 and 13 kilograms of cocaine, respectively, after disembarking from different Sao Paulo-Dubai-Yerevan transit flights.

Some of the foreign nationals arrested in Armenia have criminal records.

According to the Armenian Police Department’s National Interpol Central Bureau, Cordova, the 34-year-old Peruvian, was arrested in 2012 for transporting 10,900 kilograms of cocaine chloral hydrate from one Peruvian town to another.

In court, the Argentinian Torres stated that in 2012 he transported cocaine to the Republic of South Africa after being promised a payment of US$ 6,000-7,000. He was arrested and spent 19 months in custody. He said he was later freed on a technicality and sent back to Argentina.

Zelbert also has a criminal record. Karineh Khachatryan, his lawyer in Armenia, declined comment.

In 2011, Zelbert was arrested at the Malta airport for drug smuggling. According to the Maltese court registry, Zelbert was charged with smuggling 443.69 grams of cocaine and a diazepam-like tranquilizer drug and sentenced to 4.5 years. In 2015, he was arrested again on suspicion of trafficking more than 20 times that amount of drugs.