Suspected cocaine kingpin extradited to Moscow

The suspected ringleader of an elaborate cocaine smuggling operation from Argentina to Russia has been extradited back to his homeland.

A man believed to be the mastermind behind an attempted shipment of cocaine from Argentina to Russia weighing almost 400 kilograms has been extradited to Moscow.

Suspect Andrei Kovalchuk is in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center and has been formally charged with illegal drug trafficking, his lawyer said on Monday.

The Russian citizen was identified and arrested in Germany in March after the plot to load 16 cocaine-filled suitcases onto a diplomatic flight from the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires was uncovered. The Russian ambassador tipped off Argentinian officials to the plan in December 2016, who then replaced the cocaine with flour and location trackers to discover those responsible.

The investigation, which took over one year, has also seen two Argentinians and three other Russians apprehended. The Federal Security Service has previously stated Kovalchuk, who worked at the Russian embassy at the time, is the main suspect in the crime which involved more than $60 million worth of cocaine.

Argentine Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich applauded the fact “there were no leaks” and for a year it was possible to “keep the investigation secret”.

Lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said his client was not answering investigators’ questions, citing his constitutional right to refuse to testify against himself. The lawyer explained that a German judge had approved the extradition request and they had one month to appeal the decision.

“My colleague was going to file it [an appeal] today, but the ruling has already been implemented. It is unclear why the procedure [of extradition] was so accelerated,” the lawyer said.

Zherebenkov offered no further details on when his client had arrived in Russia. The case had previously generated much controversy in Russia, with the lawyer previously claiming his client had been set up by the CIA to tarnish the image of the Russian embassy in Argentina. He provided no evidence to back up this claim.

Officials believe the cocaine was likely to have originated in Peru or Colombia, with distribution intended for Germany, Kovalchuck’s adopted home.

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