Smugglers transporting illicit drugs, arms, and gold are increasingly using commercial and cargo flights to move shipments, according to data on the evolution of air routes following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alerts generated in Latin American airports for crime and corruption increased by 147% between 2021 and 2023, according to data provided to InSight Crime by risk intelligence firm, Osprey Flight Solutions (OFS). OFS generates the alerts based on continuous, real-time monitoring of events linked to security in the aviation industry.  

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The countries registering most alerts were Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. The alerts registered by OFS — valid for commercial and cargo flights —  were generated at major airports with connections to the United States, Europe, and Africa.

Criminal groups use many methods to traffic illicit goods via commercial air routes. Common tactics include stashing goods in hidden compartments built into legal shipments, setting up legitimate export companies to conceal illegal shipments, and corrupting airport authorities to facilitate drug trafficking. 

Although the sharp increase in alerts likely correlates with an increase in international flights following the removal of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the data exposes how smugglers are exploiting the resumption of commercial aviation


Brazil registered the highest number of OFS alerts, recording 1,737 between February 2021 and February 2024. The incidents were mainly reports of gold and drug trafficking.

An increase in illegal gold mining during the administration of former Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro (2018-2022), is a possible factor behind the spike in alerts. Increases in gold prices —  especially in 2021 — and employment woes during the COVID-19 pandemic favored the illegal gold industry’s expansion. Smugglers transport illegal gold from Guarulhos International Airport, near São Paulo, to Dubai and the United States, according to OFS.

When it comes to cocaine trafficking, the OFS alerts reveal an aerial smuggling route connecting airports in Manaus and São Paulo to Fortaleza, a port city on Brazil’s eastern coast. The increase in drug alerts coincides with Fortaleza’s consolidation as a dispatch point for cocaine shipment bound for Africa, especially after 2018. This use of this route could be an attempt by drug traffickers to evade controls at larger ports, such as Santos in São Paulo. 

Brazil’s figures, though high, are not surprising — especially for São Paulo’s airport. 

“The flow of travelers that travel through that airport each day, plus the amount of flights that depart to Europe every day, just make it a very high-profile airport for drug traffickers,” Mathilde Tisserand, a senior aviation security analyst at OFS, told InSight Crime.  


Mexico placed second on the OFS list, registering 700 alerts during the period of study. The results highlight the flow of synthetic drugs via domestic flights departing Culicán and Querétaro, destined for cities on the US-Mexico border such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Drug traffickers increasingly use aerial routes to move synthetic drugs because the shipping times are shorter, and they see less risk of interception by authorities, a prosecutor working on drug cases in Baja California told InSight Crime. 

OFS also tracked the flow of synthetic drugs from Mexico abroad. One of the main international routes is to Hong Kong, a key drug hub in East Asia. The Hong Kong airport has seen a 32% rise in synthetic drug seizures during the first four months of 2024, compared to the entirety of 2023, according to official statistics reported in local press.

Most drugs arrive in the city via human couriers, destined for the local consumption market.

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OFS also tracked the flow of drugs hidden in air cargo from Mexico to Australia, via Hong Kong. This suggests Mexican drug trafficking organizations are not only looking to supply drug markets in East Asia and Oceania, but that they are increasingly turning to air cargo as a means of doing so quickly — the air route takes approximately three days. 


Colombia ranked third on OFS’ list, with 488 alerts. Cocaine was the most common substance trafficked via air cargo. The main flight routes connect capital city Bogotá to the island of San Andrés — a Colombian territory in the Caribbean — but there have also been drug alerts linked to flights to Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia. 

Record cocaine production in Colombia has favored the diversification of smuggling methods, including in the aviation domain, Tisserand told InSight Crime. Alerts at Colombian airports, tracked by OFS, increased by 275% between 2021 and 2023. These included some exceptionally large seizures at airports in San Andrés, among other destinations. 

The island of San Andrés has become a major destination for domestic drug transit in recent years, with drug traffickers exploiting both aerial and maritime routes. In July 2023, Colombian police intercepted 1.5 tons of cocaine at the San Andrés airport, after it had been shipped from an airport in the west of the country, allegedly with the help of three airport workers.