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U.S. authorities are assisting the Mexican government in the investigation of an American business jet that crashed near Cancun this week with four tons of cocaine on board, officials said Thursday.
One of the men listed as the registered owners of the plane, Joao Luiz Malago, said in a telephone interview from Brazil that his Florida-based company sold the aircraft for $2 million on Sept. 16 to a Lakeland, Fla., man and his partner, who Malago believed was from Miami.
Malago said he feared the man was dead because he hasn’t been picking up the phone.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico had no information on any American citizens being killed or arrested in connection with the aircraft, a 1975 model Gulfstream II.
“We’re in the process of a judicial investigation that the Mexican government is conducting and we are providing information,” said an embassy official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “Part of that investigation is to find out more about where this plane came from and who had it before.”
Some news reports have linked the plane to the transport of terrorist suspects to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but those reports cite logs that indicate only that the plane flew twice between Washington, D.C., and Guantanamo and once between Oxford, Conn., and Guantanamo. No terrorist suspects are known to have been transferred to Guantanamo directly from the United States.
The jet, carrying the tail number N987SA, changed hands twice in recent weeks. But how it ended up in the hands of suspected drug traffickers remains a mystery.
The Mexican attorney general’s office said the blue and white Gulfstream II crashed on Monday in a remote jungle area on the Yucatan Peninsula. Authorities seized 132 bags of cocaine weighing four tons. Two men were arrested and jailed on drug trafficking charges in Merida, officials said. They declined to identify the men, however.
The aircraft was sold on Aug. 30 to Donna Blue Aircraft, owned by two Brazilians: Malago and his partner Eduardo Dias Guimaraes. In separate telephone interviews from different parts of Brazil, both men said they’d sold the aircraft to two Florida men on Sept. 16.
“We are not the owners of the plane,” said Guimaraes, reached in Goiania in central Brazil.
He deferred most questions to his partner, Malago, who said from Sao Paulo that Donna Blue purchased the aircraft in July from a company that had owned it for 10 years, and then flipped it quickly to two Florida businessmen who paid for it in full.
McClatchy is withholding the names of the alleged new owners of the plane because they couldn’t be reached for confirmation.
The Gulfstream was awaiting documentation when it departed on Sept. 18 at 5:10 pm from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to Toluca, outside Mexico City, Malago said. He said he learned of Monday’s crash after receiving a call from an insurance company, but had been unable to reach the new owner by phone and feared he was dead.
He said he knew nothing of the plane’s history or what use it had been put to previously. He said he’d been a pilot for 25 years and had bought and sold planes throughout Latin America. “Generally you don’t know the history of the plane,” he said.
At the time of the Guantanamo flights, the plane’s operation was managed by Air Rutter International, a California-based air charter service, but was owned by someone else. Air Rutter’s owner, Bill Cripe, refused to identify that owner, except to say he was a reputable businessman. Cripe also said he didn’t know about any flights to Guantanamo.
The four tons of cocaine found aboard a U.S.-registered business jet that crashed in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Monday belonged to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, this country’s most notorious drug trafficker, Mexican authorities said Friday.
The business jet that was transporting the dope to Mexico from Colombia was purchased just a week before the crash by a U.S. pilot with a history of legal and financial problems in Florida, interviews and official records indicate, but whether the pilot still owned the plane at the time of its crash is unknown.
The complex sale of the Gulfstream II jet and its end in the Mexican jungle highlight the increasingly complicated illicit drug trade. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the trade generates as much as $23 billion a year for Mexico-based drug cartels.
U.S. authorities say as much as 90 percent of the cocaine sold in the U.S. is shipped through Mexico.
At least three suspects, including a Mexican pilot, are in Mexican custody. Mexican authorities say two of the men offered them money if they would give back the cocaine and release any crewmembers.
The Gulfstream II departed Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sept. 18. In the days between then and the plane’s crash, it apparently flew to Mexico, then to Colombia and was on its way back to Mexico when Mexican anti-drug aircraft intercepted it.
“The cocaine was to be delivered to El Chapo,” said an official in the Mexican attorney general’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We do know it was from Colombia.”
Guzman has acquired an almost mythic status in Mexico. After breaking out of jail in 2001, he has repeatedly eluded capture and is revered in some parts of this impoverished nation as a Robin Hood figure who distributes some of his ill-gotten gains to the poor.
How the U.S.-registered Gulfstream ended up in the hands of Guzman’s violent Sinaloa Cartel isn’t clear.
A bill of sale obtained by McClatchy Newspapers indicates that Florida pilot Clyde O’Connor bought the plane on Sept. 16 â€” eight days before it went down in the Yucatan jungle. Another Florida pilot, identified by his license number and signature as Greg Smith, also signed the document, but his relationship to O’Connor isn’t detailed.
According to electronic court records, O’Connor, 42, was found guilty of criminal safety violations â€” described as “improper/insufficient safety equipment or lights” â€” in 2001. Records also show two bankruptcy filings, one in 1997 and another in 1998.
Ten years later, his financial problems apparently had abated. Two Brazilians â€” the last registered owners of the plane â€” said O’Connor wired them $2 million to purchase the business jet earlier this month.
The Brazilians provided McClatchy with the bill of sale, but the Federal Aviation Administration said it hadn’t received the change-of-ownership paperwork.
Attempts to reach O’Connor and Smith weren’t successful; the listed phone number for one of O’Connor’s companies, Execstar Aviation in Fort Lauderdale, was disconnected.
Interviewed by phone from the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, one of the Brazilians, Joao Luiz Malago, said Friday that O’Connor and Smith had told him they planned to resell the aircraft. The FAA confirmed that the two men are licensed Florida pilots in good standing.
Malago said O’Connor struck a hard bargain, negotiating him down from a desired sale price of $2.3 million to $2 million.
“This guy was a pain,” recalled Malago. “Finally we got to a point that we found a good number for me and for him was $2 million.”
Logs found on a plane-tracking Web site, www.flightaware.com, show that a flight plan was filed for the Gulfstream two days later for a trip from Fort Lauderdale to Cancun, but who piloted the craft is unknown. FAA records show that neither O’Connor nor Smith was certified to fly a multiengine aircraft like the Gulfstream. The plane crashed near Merida, 200 miles from Cancun.
Getting to the bottom of the plane’s ownership and circuitous trajectory are key pieces of a criminal investigation that Mexican authorities are conducting with the aid of American diplomats and law enforcement, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, officials said.
“U.S. law enforcement and other government authorities are still looking into the history of the plane and its ownership and any possible implications that would have for criminal activity,” said Judith Bryan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.
Malago and his business partner, Eduardo Dias Guimaraes, had owned the plane only since August, when their Florida-based Donna Blue Aircraft, an aviation sales company, bought the plane from a holding company owned by New York real estate developer and thoroughbred horse owner William Achenbaum.
Adding to the plane’s mystery are allegations that it made trips in 2003, 2004 and 2005 between the United States and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. detention center for suspected terrorists is located.
Employees of Achenbaum wouldn’t discuss how the plane was used while he owned it. They referred calls to William Cripe, who runs Air Rutter International in Long Beach, Calif. Cripe said he leased the plane for a year until it was sold, using it in his charter service. He said the plane didn’t fly to Cuba or to the Caribbean while his company operated it.
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