KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian government, through its state-owned aircraft factory, is engaged in a series of business deals with the Colombian cocaine cartels, selling and leasing a small fleet of Soviet-designed military cargo planes to drug traffickers.
The Antonov-32Bs, twin-engine turboprops regarded by U.S. anti-drug officials as "the ultimate smugglers' plane," have been employed along traditional drug routes from Colombia, Peru, Panama and Mexico, according to U.S. and Colombian law enforcement sources and former partners in the Ukrainian aircraft ventures.
The Antonov aviation factory retains legal ownership of at least six of about a dozen Antonovs known to be operating in Colombia. As a result, the now-ailing state-owned factory stands to profit from what appear to be continuing business arrangements with traffickers.
The United States has warned Ukraine privately that drug runners are acquiring its planes, a senior Clinton administration official in Washington said.
Equipping drug traffickers with planes is a threat to U.S. national security interests, the official said.
Despite the warnings, American sources say there are few signs of official action by Ukraine to reverse the deals.
In fact, at least six new sales were still pending last month, a Colombian aircraft broker involved in the transactions said in an interview.
The planes are flown by experienced Ukrainian and Russian pilots who also assist in training local flight crews.
U.S. officials say they are unsure how many Antonovs are actually operating in Colombia either in legitimate or illicit trades. The number varies from nine to 20.
Colombian aviation records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times show nine are registered, but Colombian national police say they have spotted at least 12.