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Your attention please: Drug gangs buy jets for trans-Atlantic coke flights, some departed from Venezuela.

U.S. prosecutors in a series of court cases say they are beginning to unravel the latest innovation in drug smuggling: South American gangs that are buying old jets and other planes, filling them with cocaine and flying them more than 3,000 miles across the ocean to Africa.

At least three gangs have struck deals to fly drugs to West Africa and from there to Europe, according to U.S. indictments.

“The sky’s the limit,” one Sierra Leone trafficker boasted to a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, according to court documents.

Most of the cocaine flown to Africa is bound for Europe, where demand has been rising over the past decade. South American gangs are turning to airplanes because European navies have been intercepting more boat shipments along the African coast, trafficking experts say.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s decision to sever ties with most U.S. law enforcement agencies in 2005 has made it easier to take cocaine to staging sites on the Venezuelan coast, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“The DEA is not present there, the Venezuelan military is making money off it, and much of the territory is just not controlled by the government,” Felbab-Brown said.

Recent U.S. court cases involving trans-Atlantic flights and Venezuela include:

• The Valencia-Arbelaez Organization, broken up by undercover U.S. agents after it bought a $2 million plane to run monthly flights between Venezuela and Guinea. The group claimed to have six aircraft already flying.

• A ring based in Colombia and Liberia, arrested after one of its planes was seized in May with two tons of cocaine as it prepared to leave Venezuela. Prosecutors say the group was planning to fly shipments twice a month. One defendant claimed to manage five other aircraft making similar hauls.

• Walid Makled-Garcia, who prosecutors say controlled airstrips in Venezuela used to launch drug flights. Prosecutors say Makled-Garcia was behind one of the biggest drug plane shipments in recent years: a DC-9 that landed in Mexico in 2006 with more than 12,300 pounds of cocaine on board.

The global economic slump also has idled hundreds of aircraft. Ads on websites such as Planemart.com offer DC-8s for as low as $275,000. READ MORE HERE.