The Hamilton Spectator
‘Left to languish’: Airline crew that reported $23M in cocaine to authorities is finally home
But W5 contends their ordeal — including time in prison and most of a year on foreign house arrest — is being ignored
It’s been nearly a year since five members of a Pivot Airlines crew from Canada were wrongly detained in an international drug bust in the Dominican Republic.
They are home now, but not one of them — including the co-pilot from Hamilton — has been interviewed about the ordeal by the RCMP or any other Canadian authority.
It’s like the $23-million cocaine cache, their terrifying days in jail or their months of house arrest on the Caribbean island never happened.
Most of what is publicly known about the massive cocaine-smuggling operation and its fallout comes from the media — in particular CTV’s W5 which aired its latest story, called Cocaine Cargo II, on Saturday.
“We have uncovered, through police emails and sources, that the RCMP was aware of a plan to import hundreds of kilos of cocaine from the Dominican Republic to Canada, a couple of months before the crew found and reported the drugs on their plane,” investigative reporter Avery Haines told The Spectator. “Our sources tell us that they even had two of the passengers on their radar.”
The crew was arrested and detained for eight months after discovering 210 kilograms of cocaine hidden on their chartered plane at Punta Cana International Airport. The bricks of cocaine were found by the crew on April 5 last year, before the twin-engine jet was to depart for Toronto. They were in black bags hidden in an electrical compartment. Had they not found the contraband and taken off, Pivot says the plane may have caught fire or crashed due to the extra weight.
The crew reported their find to local authorities and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Dominican National Directorate for Drug Control (DNCD) said at the time that it searched the jet after receiving “intelligence” about the cocaine.
The crew — a technician, two pilots and two flight attendants — was detained.
They included a Hamilton man acquitted in a notorious and bizarre domestic violence case that sent his brother to prison.
Aatif Safdar is a licensed pilot. His brother, Adeel Safdar, is a now disgraced scientist once held up as a superstar researcher by McMaster University. He is serving a four-year prison sentence for breaking his former wife’s jaw in two places and permanently disfiguring her ear.
Adeel, Aatif and their mother, Shaheen Safdar, were accused of psychological and physical abuse.
The brothers and mother defended themselves by claiming the victim was mentally ill and inflicted her injuries on herself.
Adeel was found guilty of aggravated assault. Aatif and his mother were found not guilty of assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, assault and threatening death.
The Pivot crew was held in jail cells crammed with other detainees.
At the time, Pivot told The Spectator: “The circumstances for our crew in these facilities is dangerous and highly volatile. Our male crew members in particular have been held in communal cells with individuals accused of involvement in drug-related crimes.”
The crew was threatened and considered “rats” for reporting the cocaine to authorities. A dead body was placed outside the men’s cell and they were told they would be next.
Seven passengers were also detained.
Eventually, the crew was released on bail but put on house arrest, unable to leave the island. They moved from safe house to safe house and were protected by private security hired by Pivot, the airline said.
Pivot appealed to Canadian politicians to intervene and implored travellers not to go to Dominican Republic for their own safety.
At one point the crew released a video in which they begged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to lobby Dominican officials for their release back to Canada.
“We did our jobs by reporting these drugs and saving Canadian lives. Now we need you to do yours,” said Robert DiVenanzo, the captain.
Haines went to Punta Cana and interviewed the crew for her first Cocaine Cargo story that aired in December. She reported on how one of the crew members discovered the evidence that eventually led to their release. While closely watching surveillance footage from the airport recorded the night before the drug discovery, the crew member realized the video had been edited. The time-stamp skipped from 3:26 a.m. to 4:09 a.m. Another video from a different camera, however, was intact. It showed blurry figures moving the bags of cocaine onto the plane.
Meanwhile, surveillance cameras at the crew’s hotel showed they hadn’t left there all night.
The crew was finally allowed to leave the island nation and return
home in December.
They were never charged or questioned by Dominican police, according to Pivot.
Haines, along with producer Eric Szeto, believe they know who the drug kingpin behind the drug operation is.
Yet, no arrests have been made. “This has really enraged the private airline’s crew,” says Haines, “who already feel as though they were left to languish in Dominican Republic … and now want to know how that could be if this was on their radar.
“They disrupted a massive shipment of cocaine to Canada and they felt under extreme threat while they were in the Dominican Republic.”
Not only has the RCMP not interviewed the crew, Transport Canada hasn’t spoken with them either, despite the fact the department is supposed to be investigating, according to Haines.
The ripple effect of this drug operation goes beyond the Pivot crew and passengers. It has sent a chill through the airline industry worldwide.
“It has made crews question if they should report contraband that they find in their plane because they’ve seen what’s happened to the Pivot Airlines crew,” said Haines. More than a million Canadians travel to the Dominican Republic every year. The Pivot crew told Haines all of those travellers should be concerned.