Suitcases exchanged in airport, Brazil seeks to free two women suspected of trafficking cocaine in Germany

Brazil seeks to free Jeanne Paolini and Kátyna Baía, two Brazilian women suspected of international drug trafficking and jailed in Germany for a month now. Brazilian federal police think they are victims with their suitcases exchanged with two bags containing 40kg of cocaine at a São Paulo airport unbeknown to them.

São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport
Terminal of the São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport, the busiest airport of Brazil.

Jeanne Paolini, a veterinarian, and Kátyna Baía, a personal fitness coach, live in Goiânia, the Goiás State capital southwest of Brasilia, and have been married for 12 years. As travel enthusiasts, they flew last month to Europe for a 20-day trip to visit Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic. But instead, they have spent a month in prison in Frankfurt, Germany, suspected of participating in international drug trafficking.

They flew from Santa Genoveva international airport of Goiânia to Germany. The flight included two stopovers, in São Paulo and Frankfurt. And on March 5, German authorities arrested them in Frankfurt after landing from their flight from Brazil. They passed immigration control and went to the boarding gate to take their plane to Berlin when they got approached and handcuffed by German police officers. Two of their suitcases tagged with their names were full of cocaine.

But for the federal police of Brazil, “there is a series of evidence that leads to believe that they are not involved in transporting drug because they do not correspond to the usual pattern of the so-called mules.” The trip was planned well in advance – tickets and hotel reservations were bought in June last year – which would be unusual for criminals, according to the police.

On April 4, the federal police said they identified and arrested six people that sent 40 kilograms of cocaine to Germany by exchanging the two passengers’ luggage without any illicit products inside for luggage full of drugs. They removed the tags from the checked-in bags and put them on the ones with cocaine.

According to a United Nations report alerting the record-high supply of cocaine worldwide, Brazil appeared to be a developing route for transporting cocaine to Western Europe.

Suitcases allegedly exchanged during a stopover in São Paulo

Fantástico, a Brazilian news program broadcast on TV Globo, has released video footage of the journey of the two suitcases owned by the Brazilian travelers. The exchange of bags would have occurred in the international airport of Guarulhos in São Paulo, the country’s busiest airport, where the two Brazilians made an 11-hour stopover.

Two employees of WFS Orbital, an airport ground handling services company, were seen handling the two bags. The first employee picks up Jeanne’s light-pink-colored suitcase, looks at the label and puts it on the floor. The second employee comes, checks it and seems to take a picture of it with his mobile phone. The first employee puts the suitcase back on the conveyor. Kátyna’s black suitcase is then placed with Jeanne’s by the second employee, who also changes its tag.

Sao Paulo Airport luggage
Camera footage shows an employee changing the tag of Jeanne Paolini’s luggage while in transit at São Paulo’s airport. The police think it has been exchanged with a suitcase full of cocaine | Fàntastico

A few minutes later, two unidentified women with two suitcases, of different but similar sizes and color tones to the two Brazilian’s bags, arrived at one of the airport terminals around 8 p.m. They leave them at a check-in counter to a woman while the area is almost empty: no counter for checking-in bags is open. They leave the airport a few minutes later with no luggage and without taking a flight.

The woman who received the bags at the check-in counter and put them on the treadmill was an employee of Gol, a low-cost Brazilian airline. She admitted to being part of the scheme. The police seized 43,000 reais (8,500 dollars) in cash at her house. She is the only suspect who is currently free by a court decision.

In a note sent to Fantástico, Gol said that it was available to the authorities to collaborate in any way necessary and that it would take appropriate actions at the end of the investigations.

A man carried the bags full of 20kg of cocaine each, which were then transported from the domestic flights’ zone to the international flights’ area through the airport runway so that they avoid X-ray scans, according to the police. The alleged exchange of bags occurred behind a pillar, in the security camera’s blind spot, by the second employee of WFS Orbital.

The first employee, who has also been arrested, said he was not part of any criminal scheme, was willing to collaborate with the investigations, and claimed to be a victim of the federal police because they immediately considered all employees who worked close to the bags members of a criminal group. WFS Orbital stated they thoroughly verify people’s criminal and social backgrounds before hiring them.

The airport said the responsibility of luggage management falls under the airline company operating the flight. The two Brazilian women flew with Latam. Latam Airlines said they collaborated in the investigation and were in contact with the families of the two passengers.

German authorities want the pieces of evidence to come from the government of Brazil to review them. On Thursday (Friday in Germany), Augusto de Arruda Botelho, the national secretary of Justice, tweeted that the ministry of Justice received a request to share the complete set of evidence from the German authorities and complied with it.

The families are now hoping for the release of the two women, which should take place within a couple of weeks, according to their defense representatives.

The original suitcases, which weighed 16kg and 17kg according to the boarding pass, are still to be found. It is still unclear why these two suitcases were chosen.

In May 2019, a Brazilian couple flying to Paris was the victim of a similar subterfuge with the tags of their suitcases changed during a stopover in Fortaleza. Arrested at Lisbon’s airport, they were released after 53 days in a Portuguese jail.

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