Geopolitics of Drugs: Narcoavión de Guantánamo

October 29, 2007

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Multimedia:

-Video of N987SA Crash Site from Mexican TV
-Flightaware.com Flight Records

Extended Interviews [MP3]:
-Por Esto Publisher, Mario Menendez Rodriguez
-Author and investigative journalist, Daniel Hopsicker

Before President Bush proposed giving the Mexican government more than a billion dollars in aid to fight the war on drugs last week…We noticed a strange phenomenon.

Either it's a series of coincidences,
Or it's evidence of serious corruption…

They have a word for it in Spanish:

MARIO MENENDEZ RODRIGUEZ “Narcoavion, that's how we say it”

Drug Planes.

And if you try to figure what happened to one of these planes, you'll discover just how little you're allowed to know

SECRETARY: “I'm not allowed to answer any questions regarding the aircraft”

...about the world of private jets and drugs.
So let's start out with what we are allowed to know.
On a late Sunday Night last month, an American Gulfstream two private jet, crash-landed into the jungles of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

It managed to avoid catching fire, skidding across the jungle floor, and splitting into three pieces. Mexican TV showed images of the plane and its cargo… dozens of “military style” duffel bags containing several metric tons of cocaine. [1]

The reason this made the news is the history of the plane, tail number N987SA…Starting in 2003, the plane made several trips from Washington and Connecticut to Guantanamo Bay. This led to questions of its use by military or intelligence agencies. Since... how many people really fly from Connecticut to Guantanamo?

JAY ROOT: I mean, if you're flyin to Guantanamo, its government business,

That was Jay Root, he reported on the plane for McClatchy Newspapers with his partner Kevin Hall.

KEVIN HALL: The CIA's confirmed it was used, it was not confirmed now, it was confirmed in earlier reports through the tail numbers

The plane shows up on the list of CIA planes compiled for the EU human rights investigation into the “extraordinary rendition” program. Still, just being used in the program doesn't mean it was ever used to transfer prisoners. Only 2% of the its flights had prisoners on board… the rest were logistical support.

ROOT: You know in some cases, soldiers literally, or you know,  CIA interrogators missed starbucks coffee so they would fly in some Starbucks coffee.

But even if the CIA was just using it for coffee runs…it was still a CIA jet. But the big question is:  Was it still a CIA jet at the time it crashed full of drugs?

OFFICIAL: I can neither confirm nor deny

Tracing who the last owner was raises more questions than it answers. First: FAA records show the company that had the plane during its Guantanamo flights sold it on August 30[2]

The new owner? "Donna Blue Aircraft"[3] a corporation recently registered in South Florida to two Brazilians

HALL: one of these mailboxes-are-us type of business

Donnablueaircraft dot com was registered just ten days before they bought the plane[4] So is this just a Front Company?  Investigative journalist Daniel Hopsicker visited Donna Blue's listed address… He found an empty office suite, a blank sign, and six unmarked police cruisers parked in front.[5]

HOPSICKER: It's a phony front company

Exactly who these Brazilians are is a whole ‘nuther story

HOPSICKER: Non-US citizens are not allowed to own N-Numbered Planes…and…neither one of these guys appears to be a US Citizen

HALL: he didn't check either box as to whether he was a US citizen

After just two weeks, the plane was sold again in another mysterious transaction. The only evidence for this is an anomalous bill of sale with the name of the new owner: “Clyde O'Connor” He's a well-known guy around Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport.

HALL:  I had the sense they seemed to have known more about him than they were letting on, he seems to be a veteran around that area, who's got a bit of a checkered past.

O'Connor's been involved in at least two plane crashes and he was cited for Criminal Air Safety Violations in 2001,

NORMAN: He'd gone through bankruptcies, a divorce, he's a chronic traffic offender

Florida reporter [and Blogger @ the Broward Palm Beach New Times] Bob Norman tried to track down O'Connor.

NORMAN: He's a slippery guy, … and where the money's coming from, I think that's a big question

Kevin Hall was wondering about O'Connor's money too.

HALL: …seems to own a $450,000 house, so he seems to be doin pretty well even though his businesses are going bad

He has two corporations registered in his name, but they're run out of Post Office Boxes and their phones are disconnected. Bob went looking for O'Connor at Ft. Lauderdale executive airport.  He just missed him.

NORMAN: I don't know why he was there but it was the talk of the airport

So Bob reported he had been seen around the Ft Lauderdale airport days after the crash.  The same day his story came out, O'Connor left the country in a hurry.[6] He flew to Canada and was arrested right away for lying about the guns in his bag.[7] Then, he paid several thousand dollars to get his plane back and then flew it to the Azores. He still doesn't appear to be under investigation for any wrongdoing, despite being the cocaine plane's owner of record. This really gets Bob Norman's goat…

NORMAN: This is a trail that needs to be investigated, Clyde O'Connor needs to be investigated

And according to the bill of sale…He was the lawful owner of the plane.

SLACK: Even though the paperwork may not be on record and filed, presumptive ownership transfers on the date of sale

There's another big question about Clyde

ROOT: Who actually piloted the plane out of the US was it Mr. O'Connor, who wasn't certified?…

So did he fly it illegally or did someone else fly it?
And also: who gave O'Connor the money to buy the plane?
According to the Brazilian owner, O'Connor was buying the plane on behalf of someone else… Then who's he buying it for?
There was another name on the bill of Sale:   Greg Smith, the only person involved in the deal not to have left the country. So Dan Hopsicker tried to get his side of the story,

HOPSICKER: The pilots aren't talking to the press so I asked someone who I know does business with the two pilots to call and Greg Smith blurted out ‘it was Don's money'…

That's Don Whittington, a convicted drug smuggler, tax evader and champion race car driver[8]

Several of his planes were named in investigations of the CIA rendition program[9] but we'll get back to him later. So What do we know so far…Weve got a crashed drug plane in Mexico…It's got a history of government use…It changes hands twice in a couple weeks before crashing…

And the people involved in the deal, Clyde O'Connor, Greg Smith, the Brazilian Lawyer Joao Luis Malago…don't appear to have the means to throw down two million dollars of their own cash to buy a jet…

But let's head down to Mexico to find out what happened once the plane left Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport, a week before its crash?

Steve Robertson, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration…

ROBERTSON: I can confirm that a plane crashed, and a large amount of cocaine, over three tons of cocaine was on the plane,

He said US Federal Agents are “assisting” with the investigation but that's all he could say. Through email, NTSB told me they cant give “any additional information about the nature of that technical assistance”[10] So what's the Mexican government's story?[11]

They say the plane arrived in Cancun the same day it left Florida…But they've refused to show airport records to skeptical journalists…

ROOT: and I've tried with the Mexican Aviation authorities and they're locked down they won't give me anything

Newspapers wrote that Mexican military aircraft intercepted the plane.[12]

MENENDEZ: THAT'S BULL---T…I think that's how you say it in English

Mario Menéndez Rodríguez is the editor and publisher of !Por Esto!

His reward for reporting on high-level corruption? He gets grenades thrown in his offices[13]

MENENDEZ: They tried to kill me they tried to kidnap me several times, I cannot go anywhere

So Why'd the plane crash? Apparently they hadn't bribed the right people. Menendez says the Air Traffic Controllers who were expecting the plane had gone home for the night, and the new shift denied permission to land. Who was on board? Officially, nobody was found at the crash site…but, Menendez says soldiers blocked off the area from everybody—even DEA agents—while they “secured the area.”

MENENDEZ: They didn't allow the police, they didn't allow the civil authorities, they didn't allow the newspapermen to enter               

So he sent an undercover reporter to the crash site

MENEDEZ: we got close to the airplane and saw when they were taking part of the cocaine

He says there was actually more drugs than the government admitted…

MENENDEZ: They took HALF of it

Later, Mexico's attorney general, the PGR, announced the arrest of several people in the case…They admit two of them were never on the plane.  Allegedly, they tried to bribe some soldiers…

LORES: Those poor two guys didn't do anything

Rafael Lores, a reporter for Por Esto also checked into the alleged pilot,

LORES: Nobody knows him, I called the pilot's association in Mexico City, they have a record of every single pilot and they don't know him

Despite repeated requests, the PGR has not clarified these discrepancies. 
The plane crash occurred in the midst of an increasingly violent and expensive drug war in Mexico.  From Mexico, Jay Root told me the violence was as bad as ever…

ROOT: daily basically executions, people get their heads chopped off and stuck on the gate outside city hall...

And the US wants to spend more money there. The Bush administration has asked Congress for almost one-and-a-half-billion dollars in counter-narcotics aid.[14]

ROOT: I would like to see where the money's all goin to get spent and whether there's going to be any record keeping of it.

We're not allowed to see that yet. South Florida has long been central to the drug war…and the terror war. Especially Ft Lauderdale Executive Airport says local reporter Bob Norman…

NORMAN: It has a reputation as a place where smuggling has occured

South Florida, where the 9/11 pilots practiced on private planes, [15] Has plenty of room for shady operators… Remember Don Whittington from earlier in the story? Alleged financier of the drug-plane and owner of several other rendition planes? He runs the largest operation at Ft Lauderdale executive: “World Jet International”?

HOPSICKER: When Wally Hilliard, the owner of the flight school Mohammed Atta went to bought a lear jet that was busted with 43 pounds of heroin—

Tail number N-351 WB…

HOPSICKER: He got his Lear Jet from Don Whittington too…

I asked aviation attorney Michael Slack, “what's stopping someone from buying a private plane and then filling it up with drugs or explosives or guns?”

SLACK: Nothing. You know, you have various places where something like that could be detected, but as long as the people doing it know how to make it look normal...then its not gonna get detected

A good way to detect that sort of thing would be to check out the flight records.. An FAA representative told me: the rules were changed after 9/11. Record-keeping has been privatized to Lockheed Martin, So now, flight records are private.  And then theres the loopholes in outdated FAA rules and filing systems. Dan Hopsicker told me how you do it if you want to use a private plane for something shady…

HOPSICKER: you and I sign papers transferring the plane to me

But instead of sending them to the FAA

HOPSICKER: you hold them

And if everything goes according to plan, as it normally does

HOPSICKER: you tear up the documents, if however, I get busted in Mexico with the plane

Then you send it in to FAA and there's a 30 day window after the sale to receive the paperwork… Then you've jumped the legal hurdles and muddied the waters for anyone trying to figure out what went down. And that's exactly what the evidence suggests these guys did..

ROOT:…they claim, hey we sold it, here's the bill of sale, and the FAA says no we've never gotten that, and its sort of a he-said she said.

 Unless there's a random “ramp check” there's never anyone to check if the pilot is licensed, let alone to inspect what's in those hundreds of black duffel bags you're carrying.

SLACK: That's one reason people fly private aviation, is you don't have to put up with the hassles,,,

HALL: you know, if you're going to the airport like I did yesterday, you've got to take your boots off, your belt off

But if you've got the money for an airworthy plane…

HALL:  its all yours no questions ask, you want to fly it into a building, go, have at it.

So how much are we allowed to know about this plane?
For several years after 9/11, it was used by government agencies for something…Then…its quickly flipped… between some guys who were owners in name only. You've got this strange bill of sale:

SLACK: A its not proper, B its not legal, whether they get away with it is another matter

You've got these disappearing Pilots

LORES: This guy doesn't exist

MENENDEZ: The CIA, when they fly the plane, they don't give it to someone they don't know

A month after the crash, There's still a whole bunch of unanswered questions:
Who piloted the plane out of the country?
Is anyone being held accountable in the US?
Why hasn't this story been covered in the US?

MENENDEZ: the only reason I can print this is because the newspaper belongs to me and only me…

Why aren't US authorities talking about it?
What do they know about Clyde O'Connor, these Brazilians, and whoever was on the plane?

ROOT: Do they know and they're not saying or do they not know, I mean, either one is fairly…damning.

Maybe the documented cases of protected drug smuggling in Laos, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and El Salvador wasn't just an isolated incident.
Maybe this isn't either, but instead, more of the kind of corruption that's long been alleged, rarely admitted and sometimes proven.


[1] USA Today, 9-27-07
[2] McClatchy Washington Bureau
[3] Donna Blue Aircraft Corporate Records
[4] donnablueaircraft.com WHOIS network data
[5] Mad Cow Morning News
[6] Broward Palm Beach New Times, 10-11-07
[7] Chronicle Herald [Canada]
[8] New York Times 3-16-86
[9] List of CIA Flights, World Content Today & CIA Flights 2006, World Content Today
[10]  NTSB Email to Jonah Meadows: "We are aware of this incident and we did provide technical assistance to the Mexican government, however we cannot provide any additional information about the nature of that technical assistance."
[11] Cronica [ESP]
[12] Proceso[ESP]
[13] NarcoNews
[15] Testimony at Joint Congressional 9/11 Committee


Special Thanks to:
Eilee Heikenen-Weiss
Alexandra Saloman
Daniel Hopsicker
Mario Menendez Rodriguez
Jay Root
Kevin Hall
Bob Norman