Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The American Pedigree of Honduran Drug Planes

It started off simply enough.

A private jet made an unplanned stop at Goloson Airport in La Ceiba, Honduras on Sunday evening.  But it was suspicious.  The jet had not filed a flight plan with Goloson as its destination.  In fact, it had not filed a flight plan at all.  Yet its two Mexican pilots claimed Goloson was its destination, and that it was there to pick up cargo, but could not identify what cargo, or say who would provide it.  They identified the plane as belonging to a Mexican firm, but could not name it, and told Honduran authorities the plane was arriving from Toluca, Mexico. 

These authorities quickly became suspicious.  They noticed dirt on the tires of the plane, suggesting it had previously landed on a dirt airstrip, like the clandestine strips used for drug flights.  Mexican pilots have a history of showing up in Honduras on board an empty plane, leaving it parked at an airport, and flying out on a commercial flight the next day, so Mexican pilots, especially pilots who don't know what cargo they expect or who they expect it from, are suspicious.

The Honduran authorities detained the pilots and examined the jet.  All of the seats had been removed, and drug sniffing dogs reacted, suggesting that the plane had recently had a cargo of cocaine on board.

Residue from the plane later tested positive for cocaine.

But by then, the local prosecutor had released the Mexican pilots, who had flown home to Mexico the next day on a commercial flight.  She reportedly told her boss she saw no reason to hold them.

This sounds like a Mexican drug plane, right?

It did to the Honduran press, who identified the plane as Mexican, largely on the basis of who was flying it and what the pilots told them. 

But the identification number of the plane shown in pictures and reported in the news stories is N125DH.  Mexican registrations begin with the letters XA, XB, or XC. "N" begins an American registration number. Looking it up in the FAA N-number registry online shows this is officially an American-owned plane.

N125DH is registered to Aero Investments LLC, and the address on the registration is of an LLC clearinghouse in Cheyenne, Wyoming. According to the Wyoming Secretary of State's website, this LLC was founded in 2010 with the filing done by Wyoming Corporate Services, Inc..  The FAA registration indicates this plane was purchased in 2011. 

The filing address for the registration, 2710 Thomes Ave, Cheyenne, WY, was featured in this Reuters report about Wyoming Corporate Services. Reuters described the office on Thomes Street as "a little Cayman Island on the Great Plains", and described Wyoming Corporate Services as
a business-incorporation specialist that establishes firms which can be used as "shell" companies, paper entities able to hide assets.

At the time of the Reuters investigation in 2011, more than 2000 companies used 2710 Thomes Ave. as their official address.

This is not the only plane owned by Aero Investments LLC.  They also own a GulfStream 21 seat corporate jet, registration N366JA. In 2008, prior to when Aero Investments bought N366JA, it had been used by then-Senator Obama and Secret Service agents to fly from Chicago to Afghanistan. Until July, they also owned an AeroCommander 685 9 seat prop plane, N74CP, which they sold after it crashed and suffered significant damage in Texas in June.  The investigation noted that the flight was operating as a business charter at the time. 

Because the FAA database is only up to date as of August 6, we cannot know if Aero Investments LLC still owns the aircraft that landed in La Ceiba, or recently sold it to someone in Mexico.  Aero Investments could have sold the plane since then to someone in Mexico, with the paperwork waiting to get updated in the FAA backlog. The plane can be seen listed as for sale with an aircraft broker supporting the idea that it might recently have been sold to new owners.

The last entry for this aircraft in Flight Aware, which tracks flight plans, shows the plane flying from Ontario, California to Tijuana, Mexico on August 8.  After that, nothing.  This might also point to the plane having been recently sold. 

Under FAA regulations, "the seller is responsible for removing the N numbers from his/her exported aircraft when the aircraft is deregistered."  That apparently didn't happen here.

Murky ownership of drug planes is common. Several other narco-aircraft captured in Honduras have had alleged temporary or even expired Mexican registration, while their pictures showed clear N-numbers indicating American ownership.

Like the guns used in the drug trade, the aircraft used often have an American pedigree.  Aircraft confiscated in Honduras for allegedly having carried cocaine are overwhelmingly small corporate jets and twin prop planes that can carry 10 to 20 passengers and are nearing the end of their commercial lives. These planes are worth less than the drugs they can carry, and so frequently are treated as expendable.

N125DH is no exception. It was manufactured in 1971. So one last sale to a Mexican owner with a lucrative business that didn't require the plane to continue in service for very long would be profitable.

And if such a plane lands in Honduras, it might not actually be expendable. The director of the OABI, the government agency that controls confiscated planes in Honduras, recently told the press that the Public Prosecutor's office frequently returns the planes to whoever comes to reclaim them, even if there is proof the planes were used to haul drugs.

While small corporate jets predominate in Latin America, the drug trade frugally takes advantage of other aged planes. A 2008 article in the New York Daily News outlined the purchase and use of older large jets, such as DC-8s and 727s, to haul drugs between South America, especially Colombia, and Africa and Europe. Older passenger jets like this can be purchased for as little as $250,000, less than similar vintage corporate jets.

Like the US side of narco-weapons, the US side of drug planes remains largely uninvestigated by law enforcement, and largely unreported on by the US press.

One question that springs to mind that an investigative reporter might want to ask: why does the FAA have such a loose approach to transferring title on planes, and (apparently) no effective follow through when planes that were sold by US brokers to drug traffickers still carry their US registration numbers?

1 comment:

RNS said...

If you click on the link to the N-registry for this plane today you'll see that it was sold to a Tomas Guajardo with an Oklahoma City, OK. address.