By Gates L. Scott, PilotMag 2008
In 2005, it was estimated that the global trade of illegal drugs topped over $400 billion dollars. Some say this totals the amount spent on food in the same period of time. Drug trafficking is the most widespread and lucrative organized crime operation in the United States. Illegal drug sales make up for over 40% of the organized crime activity in the country and in 2006, the estimated street value of cocaine seized by the United States Coast Guard was estimated at $3.1 billion dollars; over 238,000 pounds of cocaine. America’s hunger for cocaine and other illegal drugs drives the demand. Over 75% of cocaine distributed primarily from South American countries like Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela ends up on the streets of the United States. However, the South American domination in cultivation, processing and distribution has been lessened by drug interdiction programs of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Guard, the United States Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol and South American government’s imposition of severe restrictions on the importation of chemicals essential to cocaine processing and by the destruction of various facilities and processing sites throughout the region, as well as intensified law enforcement measures have made a great impact on trafficking operations. However, organized crime groups involved in drug trafficking share a “core/support” configuration found to be common to all organized crime groups and considering the demand and profits, it still is one of our country’s biggest problems. General and business aviation play a significant role in both the transportation of illegal drugs as well a aircraft ownership, acquisition and registration. The Federal Aviation Administration works in unison with many different services to combat illegal activities that include aviation, however the problem may be solved at a more local level with the general and business aviation communities insisting and participating on watch-dog programs. Drug smuggling aircraft and pilots walk through local, fixed-based operators everyday. The community should pay more attention.
It is estimated that Colombian trafficking organization currently export over 65% of processed cocaine on private aircraft. The remaining percentage is shipped on ocean vessels or smuggled through commercial airline carriers. Cocaine is ordinarily smuggled from South America to the United States for various organizations or groups by American citizens acting as mercenary pilots. Pilots that assist in transportation are normally ex-military, commercial and private pilots, and in some cases unlicensed pilots. The speed and mobility of air transport have made it a quite efficient and evasive mode of shipment among drug smugglers. Many groups have built clandestine airstrips either near their processing centers or along coastlines to permit fast, direct export. It is said that there are over 150 clandestine airstrips and three international airports on Colombia’s north coast to facilitate smuggling activities. Also, transshipments locations that include the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the Bahamas have been used with increased regularity for shipment drops and repackaging.
Individual pilots that are contracted or recruited for this type of smuggling are generally responsible for purchasing and or leasing transportation vehicles and flight crews. Due to the accessibility to aircraft for sale through such publication as Trade-a-Plane and Controller, pilots are able to find a host of different aircraft for the job. Also, pilots are able to acquire aircraft through many government auctions of seized property that allow traffickers options to repurchase aircraft that they were previously forced to forfeit. As traffickers attempt to move as much product as possible to the widest range of destination in the United States, aircraft that is selected for smuggling generally represent the ultimate balance between cargo capacity, useful load and range. The most popular drug smuggling aircraft to reach this balance are your conventional light-twin engine airplanes, such as the Piper Aztec, Piper Navajo, and Cessna 400 series. Helicopters have always been a useful aircraft for smugglers offering confined areas and remote locations for various off-loading operations.
In June of 2006, United States and Canadian authorities had arrested more than 40 people, seized roughly 4 tons of marijuana, 805 pounds of cocaine, 3 aircraft and $1.5 million in cash over a two year investigation as smugglers exploited terrain at the border within national forest or public land boundaries to make air drops after lots of pressure was put at points of entry. Peter Ostrovsky, Immigrations and Custom Enforcement Special Agent said using these air drops, referring to footage of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter swooping in before dawn to a remote opening in the Okanogan National Forest and releasing drugs to a waiting pick up truck, are a “new frontier” in the war on drugs.
With the introduction of turbine prop aircraft that boast longer range and fuel efficiencies, the category is also becoming more popular for long, ferrying flights. Most of these aircraft can transport at least of ton of cocaine a range of over 1,800 miles and stay airborne for many hours. Larger aircraft as the DC-3 and even aircraft like the Grumman Albatross are very common on shuttle flights to and from transshipment points, however speed and efficiency are necessity in the trade. Therefore, Lear jets and other business type aircraft are becoming the mode of choice, today.
In order to maximize range and capability, planes are often outfitted with auxiliary fuel systems and additional tanks. Fuel systems that are attached to the outside body of the aircraft or the wing must be inspected by the FAA each time the outfitted aircraft prepared for flight. However, in smaller aircraft that require additional fuel requirements, the practice is to install a collapsible rubber fuel cell or “bladder” which is placed in the plane’s fuselage. Once the fuel is used it is simply thrown away. The space occupied by the fuel bladder on a trip to South America makes room for cocaine transport on the return journey. Bladders are under all circumstances, prohibited by Federal Law.
Antiquated, yet affective, specialized electronic equipment is being used in drug smuggling aircraft to monitor law enforcement surveillance efforts as well secure communications within their organizations. Most devices are readily available in the United States and despite their expense trafficking organization will fund the cost of any equipment that facilitates ease in their operation. Devices that are used commonly are state of the art radio equipment, communication scramblers, cell phones and encrypting devices used to prevent law enforcement interception. The radio scrambler will attach to an aircraft avionics system and scramble the radio frequency with a variety of different codes. Only someone with a receiver coded to the particular scrambler frequency can decipher the transmitted message and the message is intelligible to other receivers. The speed with which a digital message is transmitted precludes radio tracking at least by traditional triangulation. So, traffickers can send and receive coded messages without being detected. Avoiding law enforcement is also reliant on specialized devices that include radar altimeters, beacon-interrogating digital radio, position tracking equipment and long range navigation instruments. Strap on night vision goggles can intensify available light by a factor of 50,000 and greatly increase the smugglers vision at night, traveling without beacons or strobes. Various agencies in drug interdiction efforts have very sophisticated systems that include Forward Looking Infrared systems, synthetic aperture radar and real-time video downlinks available for surveillance that is making these transport flight more and more difficult for pilots to fly undetected. Nonetheless, despite these agencies efforts, advancements are made on both sides of the equation that thwart capture and interdiction. With a large amount of the nation’s budget continuing to fund the Global War on Terror, money for upgraded systems, aircraft and other needs to fight the war on drugs has continually diminished.
The effort to thwart drug trafficking is becoming a sophisticated and costly proposition. General aviation and commercial aviation are playing extremely large roles in the problem. As demand remains high in the United States for illegal drugs, a problem exists not only among the aviation community but amongst international governments across the globe. There are hundreds of pilots that participate and perpetuate the problem and coerced to lauder money, fly drug smuggling missions, and diminish the efforts of internation agencies to stem the flow of drugs.
On April 1, 2008, CNN reported a story of a senior Vietnam pilot Quoc Viet Lai, accused by the Australian Crime Commission of taking bribes to smuggle almost $ 4 million of drug money out of the country in previous trips dating back to 2005. Using his privileged airline pilot status to bypass customs, he would pick up suitcases of cash in Melbourne and Sydney and carry them onto planes back to Vietnam. Quoc Viet Lai appeared in court on April 1st and was charged with 40 counts of money laundering. Lai is the second international pilot from Vietnam’s government-owned carrier to be arrested by the commission.
As part of a large investigation by a collection of theorists and journalists, a report on April 11, 2008 by Narco News, substantiated by records obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration, offered significant evidence to the connection of two or more planes carrying shipments of cocaine lead directly back the United States government. A Gulfstream II jet recently crashed in the Yucatan Peninsula carrying over 4 tons of cocaine on September 24th of last year, the owners of which were Clyde O’Conner and Greg Smith, both from Florida. Recent ownership changes just two weeks prior to the ill-fated flight have opened up a Pandora’s Box of suspicion. The Gulfstream II (tail number N987SA) has been presumably linked to rendition flights by the CIA according to investigation conducted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and other related testimonies of government operatives. In a pleading filed as part of a wrongful termination case brought before the United States Merit Systems Protection Board in 2004, Baruch Vega, a CIA asset and a foreign, counterintelligence informant, filed a lawsuit September of last year in the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. claiming the American government owes him back pay for his work that helped capture 114 Colombian drug smuggling targets. In his pleadings, he claims that between 1997 and 2000 Greg Smith listed on the bill of sale with O’Connor for the Gulfstream II was brought in by the FBI to pilot some 25 to 30 flights between Florida and Latin America as part of a United States sanctioned operation targeting Colombian narco-trafficking. Vega was a major asset for the DEA, the CIA and the FBI.
In what some say to be a connected incident, on April of 2006, a DC-9 (N900SA) aircraft flying out of St Petersburg International Airport bound for Venezuala and registered to a Skyway Aircraft partner Frederic Geffon’s Royal Sons Inc, a company also based in St. Petersburg was caught in Mexico carrying 5.5 tons of cocaine. These two aircraft are now part of an ongoing investigation in a magnanimous aviation deal which sold 50 American-registered aircraft to the Sinaloa Cartel. According to an indictment released over the holidays by Mexico’s Attorney General, Pedro Alfonso Alatorre, already indicted as the cartel’s chief financier, purchased the DC-9 airliner, the Gulfstream II business jet and 48 other planes not yet identified for the Sinaloa Cartel with laundered money, using a company that he controls that own currency exchanges at major airports in Mexico. Two American-registered planes with clear ties to the U.S. Government busted 18 months apart carrying multi tons of cocaine, both flying from St. Petersburg Airport; now that is something to think about.
On February 5, 2008, Howard Altman of the Tampa Tribune reported a story about a twin-propeller Cessna Conquest II also sold by the St. Petersburg company, Skyways Aircraft in August 2006 is now part of an international investigation, confirmed by the Tampa Tribune’s review of FBI and FAA records. As part of a “complex international money laudering scheme” to buy aircraft for drug smuggling, the aircraft was used for cocaine transportation from Venezuala to Africa, according to an affidavit by FBI agent Micheal Hoenigman. Larry Peters, the current owner of Skyways Aircraft, an aircraft broker, instructed his lawyer, Hunter Chamberlin, to take calls from the Tribune and said, “He (Larry) doesn’t know anything” about the airplane being used for drug smuggling. “This is a guy who has a small company, Whatever happens to these airplanes after Mr. Peters sells them, they enter the stream of commerce and the last Larry Peters will see of the airplane.” It turns out that Larry Peters also had connections to the former owner of the Gulfstream II that crashed in the Yucatan Peninsula, Joao Malago. Malago is a business partner of Peters in Atlantic Alcohol, a St. Petersburg company that imports ethanol from Brazil. Both deny any connection to drug smuggling.
In August of 2000, Panamanian officials working on behalf of the United States Customs seized a $1.5 million Bell Helicopter. Several years earlier the Panamanian government seized over $335,000 cash from a Bell Helicopter bank account in the United States. Alleged connection to the Black Market Peso Exchange, government officials said that highly unusual business transactions were taking place involving the sale of a Bell Helicopter. U.S. Custom agents working undercover became aware of the helicopter as they posed as money brokers working on a 2-year probe of a drug-money, laundering ring in Mobile, Alabama. The undercover agents would deposit cash into fictitious bank accounts and await instructions from their Colombian contacts on where to send the money. Oddly enough, the agents received instruction to make five wire transfers totaling $335,000 into the same Bell Helicopter bank account according to the seizure affidavit. The money was a partial payment for the helicopter. As the investigation continued, in 1998 a representative for well-known, emerald mine owner, Victor Carranza, who coincidently has been linked to the drug trade and the right wing parliamentary groups in Colombia, had approached a Bell Helicopter sales agent in Colombia to discuss an acquisition. To raise even more suspicion, this un-named representative, investigators learned had been indicted in the United States for drug trafficking in 1990. The Panamanian company used to purchase the helicopter was a front for Carranza and had been also previously linked to drug smuggling. Bell Helicopter quickly responded that it had no knowledge that the money used to purchase the helicopter was drug money. Between June and September 1998, Bell received 26 payments totaling $1,029,000 which were also credited towards the purchase of the defendants helicopter. All of these payments came from US individuals and companies not connected to Carranza or his company. This is a very unusual way to pay the bill. The United States government used the additional evidence to seize the helicopter in August of 2000 saying that the entire sale was paid for using the black peso system. It is also strange to add that the same time Bell Helicopter was negogiating the sale with Carranza and his representative, the company was lobbying Congress to earn a contract for Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion aid package that the United States government just approved to help Colombia fight narcotics trafficking. The deal included 42 refurbished Huey II s for a price of over $130 million.
Least we not forget the careers of Berrimen Adler Seal or Jack Devoe. Both accomplished aviators in their own right, but caught up in the trade. Barry Seal, who enlisted in the Civil Air Patrol as a kid, the very organization that today flies reconnaissance and spotting missions for drug interdiction efforts, became the youngest 747 captain working for Howard Hughes at TWA Airlines and was recruited as a drug trafficking pilot by a personal friend who worked for the Ochoa drug smuggling organization. After he was caught in 1972 smuggling plastic explosives into Cuba in a DC-3, he lost his job at TWA and became one of the most notorious drug smugglers in the United States. Initially, Seal flew a number of planes out of Louisiana direct to South America, one of which a vintage Vietnam C-123 military transport (incidentally, listed for sale in a local, general aviation periodical) capable of holding multiple tons of packaged cocaine. Colombian officials would receive brides to open Colombian airspace of $25,000 per flight for a “window” to conduct Seal’s smuggling flights . He maintained many aircraft cementing his Deep South smuggling operation. He had identical Cheiftan Navajos with Panther conversions, two Piper Senecas, and two of the C-123 twin engine military transports, at that time restricted aircraft as they were deemed weapons of war. The business was run like a covert operation as Seal gained respect and relations with the Colombian cartels. “The narcotics cartels I associated with was as professional as any Fortune 500 company” , Seal said in a President’s commission, revealing some of his tricks. Putatively, Seal became a snitch for the DEA and offered to break the Medellin cartel due to the fact that every major cartel was talking and working with Seal. After many hair raising flights and crashes into remote jungles, it is estimated that Seal brought in over $3 billion to $5 billion worth of drugs into the United States. He was embraced by then Vice President George Bush, former CIA Director, as an undercover operative after many convictions and indictments that should have sealed his fate. Seal wouldn’t stop there. With the United States government in his back pocket, he decided to use his undercover drug interdiction work to cover arms smuggling for the Contra operation in Central and South America in violation of United States foreign policy and in return was allowed to smuggle what he wanted back in his then home base of Mena, Arkansas. His planes were in plain view at the Mena Airport for all aviators and airport officials to see with some kept under strict security. His wild dealing caught up with him however when he was gunned down in his white Cadillac in downtown Baton Rouge by five Colombian gunmen after his illegal dealings finally caught up with him.
Jack Devoe, the owner of Devoe Airlines based in Miami operating a commuter airline to smaller cities in Florida in the 80’s and yet another renegade in aviation, drug smuggling. The business was a front for a Colombian drug trafficking operation. Devoe employed 8 to 10 commercial pilots and was involved in over 100 trafficking flights, carrying over 7,000 pounds of cocaine from South America to the United States in just under a five year period. There typical mode of transport was mid-size turbo prop aircraft. Their routes to South America would take them through the Windward Passage to official Colombian airports. In at least one instance, cocaine was openly loaded onto smuggling aircraft at Riohacha airport. In the early 1980’s Devoe shifted landings to clandestine airstrips maintained by the cartels themselves. Their routes back to the States extended over Venezuela/Colombian border, over Haiti and to the Bahamian base on Little Derby Island. There, cocaine was sealed into wing fuel tanks of a smaller aircraft and flown directly to the Florida coast. Devoe sent “cover-flight” aircraft ahead of smuggling aircraft to monitor DEA and Custom Service patrols by radio. These planes of course didn’t carry any drugs and were a great decoy pursuit airplanes. Once in the United States, Devoe’s strategy for clearing customs would be to “…act normally and file a flight plan, come in and land, and let them inspect the airplane…Custom inspectors were far less interested in a lengthly examination of my plane if I came in on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of televised football game. If the Dolphins were playing, that was even better.”