18 April 2006

Drug Smugglers

Location: Isla de Margarita, Nueva Esparata State, Venezuela

  We had no problem getting here, but this was sure a difficult country to get out of. 

We drove the highway along the island’s Atlantic Coast and got to the airport just as the ZOOM Airlines plane was landing. Flying empty from Canada, allowed the pilot to gain time and arrive an hour and fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Our GO Travel representatives, Stephanie and Juan were traveling home with us and warned everyone that the ‘line-up’ system that was employed in the Venezuelan airport could be confusing at times … little did we know. 

We were supposed to work our way through 3 different lines – tickets and baggage check in, airport taxation and a final inspection. These lines were supposed to be adjacent to one another and easily identifiable. The reality was, - the room was too small for the several hundred passengers being processed - the lines were not easily identifiable or separate - signage was minimal - there was insufficient staff available to handle anyone at any location – lines wove into each other – people butted in or got in the wrong lines, or didn’t have enough money for the airport tax. We finished the lineups by being body searched at the final inspection … a first for both of us.

Soon after sitting down in the loading gate area, airport staff began to announce a list of passenger names over the PA system that included about 1/3 of our  plane. These passengers were asked to report to Gate 17. 

One female passengers name was repeated, over and over, and finally her seat number was also announced – it took several calls before she finally reported in. Everyone was a little puzzled by this unusual activity but the remainder of us were eventually called for boarding.

As we sat on the plane, we learned that all those passengers who had been asked to report to Gate 17 were being re-searched a 2nd time because of images in there baggage detected by the scanning equipment. All luggage was being fully opened – authorities were looking at liquids, food, plants, anything illegal (drugs, guns)

Slowly the detained passengers loaded onto the plane … except for 4! I was seated at a window and at this point I noticed a number of airport authorities near our plane running around with clipboards or talking on radios … everyone seemed a little ‘animated’? Several members of our flight crew got off and back on the plane a number of times … and the crew that loads the baggage onto the plane were back … now why we would they be back?

Our pilot apologized for the delays and announced several times that we were still waiting for 4 passengers that should join us soon. His last message announced that …

…‘ a Canadian woman would not be allowed to leave the country. She did not want to stay alone and had requested that her husband disembark the plane and stay with her.

Remember that baggage crew? They emptied all the loaded baggage off the plane until they located the husbands, he left to join his wife and the final 2 passengers boarded the plane, Coincidentally, one was the mother of either the wife or husband that stayed behind and the other was a brother of one or the other.

We were 1.5 hours leaving, but at least we got to go. The woman we left behind is probably in jail – most likely drugs – we heard later she screamed loudly when they approached her for the body search. Her husband is probably looking for somewhere to stay – not an easy job – Margarita Island doesn’t have a thriving rental market.  Ours was the last plane back to Canada for several months. If and when they do get clearance to leave Venezuela, they’ll have to ‘hop and skip’ their way through different countries to get home and it will be expensive. Another Canadian couple was detained and held by immigration last week – they have not been allowed to leave.

We had a smooth flight most of the way. At one point the pilot encountered some heavy turbulence and raised our flying altitude from 34 to 38000 feet. Baggage pickup and customs clearance in Montreal went quickly. The Venezuelan authorities must have communicated the details of their seizure back to Canada, because immigration diverted about ½ the passengers to a final baggage scanner. This time the inspection included us.

A bus shuttle, hotel check in, glass of wine at the bar and into our room shortly after midnight. We were supposed to arrive at 9:35. Normally, return airport processing would take 1 to 1.5 hours, so I suppose, given the circumstances we were involved in today … being only 1 hour late is not too bad! Thankfully, our drive home to Kanata the next day was once again boring and uneventful!

Crusty ... trying to smuggle drugs is a very bad idea!

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TEAM: LOAF, Crummy, Wry & Crusty