A five-person Canadian airline crew caught up in a drug-trafficking investigation is begging their government to repatriate them after two months trapped in the Dominican Republic.
“It’s absolutely horrendous – terrible, terrible stuff we’re going through,” said captain Robert Di Venanzo, who said he and his crew could be held for up to a year while an investigation proceeds.
The episode began on 5 April, when the small charter plane belonging to Pivot Airlines was preparing to return to Toronto Pearson airport from Punta Cana.
While doing his final pre-flight checks, maintenance engineer Bal Krishna Dubey found some black duffel bags in the maintenance bay – a part of the aircraft that would normally never hold luggage.
The crew reported the unopened bags to Canada’s RCMP as well as local authorities.
A pair of Dominican police officers approached with sniffer dogs. When they unzipped the bags, smaller packages of a white substance wrapped in plastic fell out. In all, the eight bags contained 200kg of cocaine, later valued at around $25m.
The crew looked on in confusion as the officers posed for photos for a press release, and Di Venanzo initially thought the officers would thank them for reporting the bags. Instead, they threw them in jail.
Di Venanzo, Dubey, and the other male crew members Aatif Safdar, and Alexander Rozov were put in one cell – along with two dozen other inmates.
The sole female crew member, Christina Carello, was sent to a women’s cell.
Over the following nine days, inmates forced the Canadians to sleep standing up or next to the hole in the floor serving as a toilet, said Di Venanzo.
He described being threatened by the other inmates while in jail. “They were on us, trying to extort money, telling us ‘you’re not going to be safe in here, you’re not going to be able to sleep, you’re going to get injured unless you send us money via e-transfer.’ That started from day one, and progressively got worse until day nine,” he told the Guardian.
After the ninth day, they were released on bail, and are now in a safe house under 24-hour armed security paid for by Pivot Airlines.
This is not the first incident of an international airline crew facing accusations of drug trafficking out of the Dominican Republic. In 2019, two Frenchmen were sentenced to long sentences in France after trying to bring 680kg of cocaine home.
But while Di Venanzo and his crewmates are considered persons of interest in a complex drug trafficking case, they have not been charged with any crime. They maintain their innocence.
Even so, Di Venanzo fears that local prosecutors are trying to lock them back up pending the results of the investigation. The crew is anxiously awaiting a new court date to determine their fates.
“That’s the top of our top of our thoughts right now – the prospect of going back into detention in that hellish, hellish situation we were in for nine days,” he said.
Eric Edmonson, CEO of Pivot Airlines, said that “placing them back in jail alongside alleged narcotics criminals will put them at serious risk of harm, without the protection of the private security we have hired.” The company is providing the crew with legal support.
The fate of the seven passengers aboard the flight is not known; neither Di Venanzo nor a representative for Pivot Airlines would comment on their whereabouts or if they have been charged. Attempts to contact passengers have gone unanswered.
Global Affairs Canada said that “officials continue to monitor the situation closely, are engaging with local authorities, and providing consular assistance”.
Global Affairs refused to provide further details, but it is known that Dubey’s Canadian citizenship was expedited so that he could continue receiving consular support. He took the oath of citizenship remotely from the Dominican Republic.
Police and prosecutors in the Dominican Republic did not respond to a request for comment.
Now the crew is asking the Canadian government to bring them home, and have promised to participate remotely in the Dominican investigation.
In a recent video posted on Pivot Airlines’ Twitter account, Carello said: “If we go back to jail here, we know we may never come home.”