5.5 Ton DC9 Coke Bust Fallout:Worse Than Snakes on a Plane
An unidentified 40-year old American wearing a green polo shirt was in charge of the contingent of drug traffickers on the ground awaiting the arrival of the DC9 “Cocaine One” airliner arriving from Venezuela on the evening of April 11th with a spectacular haul of 5.5 tons of pure cocaine aboard, according to a recent article in Mexican newspaper Proceso by a respected Mexican journalist.
Although much about the journey of the airliner is still shrouded in mystery, amid the conflicting reports the outlines of what happened are beginning to become clear.
From various accounts in the Mexican press, we have pieced together the following story of what occurred during the shipment from Venezuela to Mexico of 5.5 tons of cocaine on its way to the U.S. until interdicted almost by accident at a tiny airport that closes each night at 6 p.m.
Reinforcing what we’ve learned about the powerful forces behind the DC9’s flight in the U.S., the plane’s progress through Mexico was being arranged through the involvement by Mexican Federal officials.
Ironically, the seized plane has been spotted at an airport in Mexico City, complete with new paint job and registration, put back into service by the same Mexican Federal investigative agency being accused of responsibility for the flight.
"It's French Connection Meets Monty Python's Holy Grail"
It was a scene right out a spy movie…
In the air, gliding in on balmy tropical updrafts at dusk, is an American-registered DC9 airliner, painted in quasi-governmental livery, a gold-bordered blue stripe running down the side, and a blue and gold Seal next to the door in the front of the plane, an American eagle clutching an olive branch in its talons.
The last rays of sunlight glint off its wings of the plane, which looks for all the world as if it were carry potentates from the US Department of Homeland Security to a conference on drug interdiction at a posh Cancun hotel.
Except this plane isn’t carrying diplomats or FBI agents…
Instead, it is loaded with 128 identical black leather suitcases, each tightly packed with cocaine, an incredible quantity of cocaine, 5.5 tons in all. Stenciled on the side of each suitcase was a single word: “Privado.”
Inside the suitcases, the packages of cocaine were stamped with different symbols: a scorpion, a star, a horse, among others, as though they were going to different drug gangs for onward smuggling up through Mexico to the U.S.
On the ground, scanning the sky nervously, are officers from the Mexican Federal Preventive Police (PFP, dressed in civilian clothes. But they aren’t there to interdict the drug shipment.
They’re there to protect it.
"We're from the government. We're here to help."
There’s an atmosphere of increasing tension in the terminal. A significant number of the airport’s regular security detail has made themselves scarce. The smart ones called in sick, including several suspected of involvement in drug trafficking.
Everyone working at the airport knows something unusual—as well as potentially unpleasant—is afoot.
The pilot of the DC9 radioed the airport to report a problem with the undercarriage of the plane. So the airport is kept open past its normal closing hour to allow the airliner to make an emergency landing.
Some news accounts will later speculate that this is a ruse to get airport authorities to allow the plane to land. However FAA repair records for the plane show it experienced a similar malfunction a year earlier in Tallahassee, where it slid right off the runway before coming to a stop.
Milling around in the small airport terminal awaiting the plane is a motley collection of people with a shared characteristic: they are all behaving strangely. They include agents of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) Intelligence Branch, as well as four presumed narcotics traffickers who flew in the previous day on a corporate jet, a Falcon 20, from the capital.
The pilot and copilot of the Falcon, Marco Aurelio Perez de Gracia and Fernando Poot Perez, will turn out to be employees of a Mexican Federal Agency, the Water Commission. They are both ex-military. They have both spent recent time in prison for drug trafficking.
They are not there by accident.
Home free with a big wad and a bottle of Jack
Nor is it an accident, apparently, that they are Mexican Federal government employees.
One control tower employee is approached by an American, described as about 40 years old, with blond hair, a deep tan, and a green polo shirt.
The American not only wants the airport to allow the plane to land… he also wants the tower to certify the flight, which means the DC9 can then continue its journey into Mexico as a domestic flight. No need to go through customs.
The American, cliché that he is, carries a Big Wad. He offers to pay cash. But his money was in dollars, the controller explained later. The airport operations office doesn’t take foreign currency, they told him. They didn’t want his bribe. His offer was refused.
Surely they had been asked to bend the rules before. The tension was palpable…The continuing mystery is why she turned him down.
“He indicated to me that the plane would just refuel and then head towards Toluca,” the employee stated.
She knew what he wanted. He isn't going to get it.
Forget the fire. Save the suitcases!
The DC9 rolled to a stop on the apron as far from the terminal as it could get. Even though the pilot had radioed the tower to alert them to a problem in the hydraulic system in the undercarriage of the plane. A flaw in a brake line. And indeed, while it was landing smoke was visible coming from the area around one of the tires.
With the danger of a fire, firefighters rushed to the plane. But they were waved away from the plane when they tried to approach.
And despite the alarm shown earlier about an undercarriage malfunction causing sparks, the pilot now was insisting on refueling. The air controller was suspicious. The American in the control tower said he was going to find the captain of the Falcon, who could smooth things over.
But that’s not what happened. And soon the DC9 bearing the American registration number N900SA was being surrounded by Mexican soldiers pressed into service in what might charitably be called Mexico’s “uneven” War on Drugs.
The news that an American was involved in the drug shipment is just one of the new details which can be gleaned by reading what newspapers in Mexico and Venezuela have been reporting. In both countries, unlike the U.S., the story has been front page news for several months.
The Mexican press is filled with reports of the involvement of a sizeable number of officers in the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), a 7-year old FBI-trained federal police force whose main mission, ironically, is enforcing Mexico’s laws against drug trafficking.
"The cynics are right nine times out of ten."
Ricardo Ravelo, author of a recent book on drug cartels in Mexico, interviewed airport personnel in Cuidad del Carmen, a city tucked into the most remote corner of the Mexican Yucatan. They told him that intrigue had already been swirling for several days before the DC9 landed.
Agents of two Mexican federal law enforcement agencies, the Policía Federal Preventiva (PFP) and of the Federal Agency of Investigación (AFI), reportedly attempted to prevent airport personnel from calling in the military to search the DC9 after it had aroused suspicions.
“On the evening before the DC9 came in Ramon (a PFP officer) appeared to the airport with González Virgen, who said he was in the intelligence division of the PFP,” said one civilian worker at the airport.
“He said they were installing new procedures for registering landings, and that he would need to speak with all the civil employees of the terminal.”
What he wanted to talk about, the man said, was an “economic adjustment” to allow the landing of the plane loaded with 5.5 tons of cocaine.
As many as a dozen Federal PFP officers may have been working to ensure the success of the drug move. Five were in Cuidad del Carmen, and reportedly attempted to keep airport personnel from calling in the Mexican military. Others visited Mexican airports where the DC9 was scheduled to land, presumably to drop off part of the load, in Toluca and Monterrey.
Get some pepper for the drug-sniffing dog
“I noticed three men loitering in the airport, in white guayabera shirts and dark trousers,” an airport security man told Ravelo. “One I had seen in the airport before in Federal (PFP) police uniform. He began asking about our drug-sniffing dog, things like what drugs could he detect.”
The PFP has been widely criticized in the Mexican press for breaking up student demonstrations and worker’s strikes, for the large percentage of military personnel in its ranks, and for the fact that its presence has had little effect on the bloodletting between drug rings.
But now the Federal force, and its local police and military support all over the country, seems squarely in the crosshairs of the Mexican news media, which is much less controlled in its reporting on drug trafficking than the mainstream American press.
The crew of the DC-9 reportedly made frequent trips to Caracas, Venezuela. And they had close ties to the two Falcon pilots, Poot Perez and Perez de Gracia. They reportedly all worked for the same criminal organization.
There were, still, loose ends. The Mexican army had managed to capture the aircraft's co-pilot, but not the pilot. He escaped. No one appears to be too concerned.
"I either want less corruption, or more chance to participate in it.”
But there was one major point of contention in Spanish language news accounts.
Venezuelan newspapers related that the DC9 had stopped in Colombia after leaving Caracas to pick up the load.
Newspapers in Mexico supporting the Vicente Fox government tended to feel Hugo Chavez had probably personally supervised the loading of the 128 suitcases, and that probably there were FARC guerrillas standing around with machine guns watching.
They even tried to pin the DC9’s massive haul on the poor fellow from whom they had just stolen the election for President. It was, however, a half-hearted effort which didn’t stick. The charge was ridiculous on its face. Imagine Al Gore as a drug lord. You get the picture.
Another point of speculation concerned which cartel was responsible for moving the load. In Mexico, the choices seem almost endless. The Sinaloa Cartel was the favorite, followed by the Tijuana cartel, the Jalisco cartel, and an outfit supposedly strong in the area the DC9 came down in, called the Southeastern Cartel.
One thing news accounts in both Mexico and Venezuela agreed on, however, was that the DC9 was U.S. registered and American-owned. But, as if to make amends for their impudence, both countries media retailed the unlikely story that the plane was owned by “the American airline Fly,” or “US air charter company, Fly.”
There is no such carrier.
The biggest question remains unanswered.
Why was the American-registered DC9 airliner(N900SA) busted in the first place, while flying what evidence indicates was a “milk run”—a routine flight flown many times before without incident? What happened? What changed?
When you’re flying a commercial airliner carrying 128 suitcases—but no passengers—you’re clearly not expecting any serious scrutiny.
So, the most amazing thing about the seizure of 5.5 tons of cocaine in Mexico four months ago is simply that it happened in the first place.
"I'm not a member of any organized party. I'm a Democrat."
A second major question posed by the bust of an American plane with 5.5 tons of cocaine may be even more mystifying:
In the face of mounting evidence that the drug trafficking organization involved in the flight maintains close ties both to President George W. Bush as well as to the national Republican Party, why haven’t the ghosts who populate the Democratic Party made an issue of the flight?
The disheartening answer is likely to be found in what we do know—for a certainty—about the uncertain business of narcotics trafficking…
Veteran Miami Private Detective Gary McDaniel educated us on the basics of the industry while we were doing research for “Barry & the boys.”
"Every successful drug trafficking organization needs four things to be successful,” he had told us, ticking them off on his fingers… “Production, distribution, transportation, and protection.”
When you think about it, this is only common sense. But it also completely undermines the unstated myth behind mainstream media reporting in the U.S. about the international narcotics trade… that it is hidden from law enforcement, in a way that requires diligent police work to uncover.
The DEA's weasel from hell
How can you hide the daily workings of an industry shipping 5.5 tons of cocaine at a crack from a government that can read the make of your golf ball from outer space?
The answer is: you can’t. The police chief of every good-sized American city knows the name of the wholesale distributor selling product to street-level dealers to retail in his town.
And—this is a mini-editorial—that’s why voters should take every opportunity to defeat hypocrites like Asa Hutchinson, now running for Governor in Arkansas.
Hutchinson served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, where he specialized in looking the other way while the biggest cocaine smuggling operation in recorded history hummed along right outside his office window.
As a reward for Asia’s lack of effort, he became George W. Bush’s choice to become the head of America’s DEA. But that’s the U.S. side.
This series has illustrated the complicity of agencies of the U.S. Government in the case. The owner of the airplane in question, for example, today walks the streets a free man.
The DEA appears unconcerned.
Before going bankrupt, the company which painted the plane to look like it belonged to the U.S. Government, SkyWay Aircraft, was clearly up to no good. They had no use for one DC9. Yet they controlled two. The Chairman of SkyWay was a former employee of the U.S. Forest Service who claims to have been a long-time CIA agent.
He has not been taken in for questioning.
Perhaps government complicity in the protected drug trade may be easier to spot in Mexico, not because its more prevalent, but because its easier to imagine the worst when dealing with foreigners.
But we have plenty of drug lords of our own.
NEXT: LA JOLLA, ARGYLL EQUITIES, RANDY CUNNINGHAM, TITAN