An international feel-good story of cross-border and cross-government cooperation has turned into a public relations nightmare for the Russian government, as questions swirl around a large cocaine shipment that found its way into the Russian Embassy in Argentina.
Six suspects were arrested last week after more than 850 pounds of cocaine were found in the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires. A former Russian diplomatic official and an Argentine police officer were among those detained. The drugs had a street value in Russia of $61 million.
Setting up a sting operation, local authorities replaced the drugs with flour, and kept the shipment – sixteen pieces of baggage in all – in place. They also inserted a GPS tracking device into one of the suitcases that was used to ship the luggage to Russia, its final destination, where two of the suspects were arrested when they attempted to retrieve it.
The story should have ended there with one of the largest drug busts in Russian history being made on the count of alert embassy staff members and assistance from a helpful government. The questions however, have only begun to rise.
Many in Russia are asking, for example, how such a large shipment of drugs could wind up in a secure diplomatic facility in the first place. The baggage was found at a school located in an annex to the embassy. According to parents whose children attend the school, the grounds are constantly guarded by members of the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service. Parents are not even allowed inside.
“If I need to talk to a teacher, they call her, she goes down and we talk at the entrance. If you need to meet with the principal’s office, then they escort me to the principal’s office,” wrote Maxim Mironov, a professor and blogger whose children attend the school.
There are also questions about the drugs being transported to Russia. Argentinian police released photos of the plane that carried the drugs and they purportedly show it as being part of the Special Flight Detachment Rossiya, a fleet of government planes that flies high-ranking Russian government officials around the world. It’s been described as the equivalent of the U.S. presidential aircraft fleet.
A flight tracking website, russianplanes.net, published information on the flight, but the Russian Foreign Ministry denied the plane’s involvement and the site was subsequently taking down.
The Foreign Ministry blasted Russian media outlets for covering the story calling it “conspiracy information” and placing large red “FAKE” stamps on screenshots of their stories. It also released a statement on Mironov, questioning his motives and insinuating that his children may no longer be able to continue studying at the school.
“His children, we hope, will continue to study in the school at the embassy. Perhaps it will compensate them for the flaws of the anti-Russian atmosphere that reigns in their family,” the statement read.
Asked if they were monitoring the growing scandal, a spokesman for the Kremlin said, “This is not our prerogative. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (should comment on that) and, as far as I know, they provided all the necessary information.”
The Foreign Affairs Ministry sounded a decidedly more strident tone in comments to reporters however. Asked if the story has tainted the Russian diplomatic core, a spokeswoman said, “It’s exactly the opposite. The success of this operation was ensured by the effective actions of the Russian ambassador and diplomatic personnel.”