An American turbo-prop airplane went down in Venezuela last month, the second such incident in the past 45 days, the MadCowMorningNews has learned.
After making an emergency landing at the International Airport José Tadeo Monagas in Maturin, Venezuela, the pilot and co-pilot of the American-registered twin-engine Piper Cheyenne (N395CA) bailed out of the plane, leaving it sitting in the middle of a runway as they sprinted for the airport fence. Onboard were 28 suitcases stuffed with 700 kilos of cocaine, and 14 empty cans of fuel.
The busted drug flight is the second recent incident involving an American plane. The first, a twin-engine Piper Navajo (N6463L)also suspected of drug trafficking, crashed outside Caracas, Venezuela while registered to a Houston firm widely thought to serve as a front to hide CIA planes, which was involved in a fiery crash near Caracas on April 28 that made international headlines.
One of the dead passengers onboard was revealed to be Alfredo Anzola, a 34-year old software engineer for controversial Chavez-connected election company Smartmatic, whose election code remains embedded in thousands of electronic voting machines in the U.S.
Another drug-laden American with hundreds of kilos of cocaine showing up unbidden on the runway of a Venezuelan airport is more grist for the mill in the propaganda war being waged between Hugo Chavez and the Bush Administration, and the bust was hailed like manna from heaven by Freddy Alonso Carrion, the commander of the Venezuela National Guard.
“And to think the U.S. government insists on accusing Venezuela without presenting any evidence,” he sniffed.
Another drug-laden American plane
The recent American-registered plane busted was seemingly registered to CHEYENNE AIR LLC, located in far-off (4300 miles from Caracas) Ellensburg, WA, home to the largest rodeo in Washington State, and the lead singer of Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees.
But things aren't always what they seem, as we will shortly see, in this contest of wills in which, in 2006, Venezuela kicked out U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operatives, alleging they were involved in espionage and drug trafficking.
The U.S. State Department recently criticized Venezuela for what it called “its drug trafficking role in the western hemisphere, refusal to cooperate with the US on counter-narcotics activities, weaknesses in its anti-money laundering regime, and corruption in the banking sector.”
Maybe its the raspberry beret
The busted drug flight followed two weeks after a twin-engine Piper Navajo (N6463L) was involved in a fiery plane crash near Caracas that made international headlines.
The plane was on its way to the Caribbean island of Curacao when the pilot radioed the tower, just 13 minutes after takeoff, saying he was experiencing engine failure in both engines, and was turning around and heading back to the international airport at Maiquetía.
The plane never made it back. Instead, it crashed atop the six-story roof of an apartment building near Caracas, several miles short of the airport.
The crash killed five people on the ground, as well as three men onboard, including passenger Alfredo Anzola, a 34-year old software engineer and a founder of Smartmatic. Anzola's election code is embedded in thousands of electronic voting machines across America, through the company’s former subsidiary, Sequoia Pacific, a company with a rap sheet as long as a Gambino foot soldier.
Sequoia was also the election company largely responsible for the Florida vote snafu after the 2000 Presidential election.
Allegations that Smartmatic was controlled by that proud wearer of the Raspberry Beret that makes the Bush Administration see red, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, forced Smartmatic to divest itself of Sequoia in 2006.
Still… what was the company's Chavez-connected founder doing on a plane owned by a Houston Texas company which has frequently been accused of providing a front for planes flying renditions for the CIA?
Drug running, election-rigging: All in a day's work
Adding to this already-rich stew was Mario Donadi, a convicted drug trafficker who did three years in U.S. prison on a 1999 felony conviction in Miami.
Donadi, the plane's pilot, was supposed to be sitting in a Venezuelan prison, serving an 8-year stretch for drug trafficking.
Had pilot Donadi released himself on his own recognizance without telling prison officials? It seemed unlikely.
Embarrassed Venezuelan authorities were quick to point out that, appearances to the contrary, Donadi had not been given a get-out-of-jail-free-card… just to fly drugs.
Other explanations, Venezuelan officials insisted, were possible. However none came immediately to mind in the days after the crash. Reporters were given to understand some hard questions would be asked of officials from Charter People, the local air charter company which controlled use of the plane.
How had the firm managed to spring a convicted drug pilot from prison to fly international charter flights? Presumably, although they didn't say, this would be one of their first questions.
4 aces and a Cayman Island Trust
Crash pictures show the plane's tail, decorated with four aces (it was used to ferry gamblers to Curacao's casinos) sitting upright on a rooftop.
A Florida company called Four Aces LLC , composed of two of Miami-Dade Counties most prominent citizens, might offer a clue… Roland Sanchez-Medina, Jr. is president-elect of THE CUBAN AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION in Miami, and real estate mogul Pedro Adrian is an influential builder whose family helped create the Latin Builders Association, one of Miami-Dade County's most powerful political players.
Alas, suspicions about Cubans in Miami notwithstanding, there is nothing, except a fondness for, well, 4 aces, to tie 4 Aces LLC to a plane with 4 Aces on its tail crashing on a rooftop near Caracas.
Fake license plates, phony 'N 'numbers
Still, two American drug planes downed in Venezuela in a short period of time raises an eyebrow, or two.
The “N” number of the plane seized May 14 could be phony, a Venezuelan official cautioned local reporters. And, as we learned, it was.
Steven Lathrop is the registered agent for the company, Cheyenne Aviation LLC in Ellensburg, WA, which was said to own the plane busted in Venezuela. His American-registered plane bearing “N” number N395CA was parked right outside in a hangar, he told us.
He had been visited by a DEA agent after the incident. Someone had used his plane's 'N' number to shield their criminality, like changing the license plates on a guy used in a bank robbery.
A comparison of pictures of the busted plane with the American-registered plane occasionally photographed at airports around the U.S. revealed that while both planes carried a white, green and gold-striped paint job, there were significant differences that confirmed that the plane seized in Venezuela was a different plane.
But, to no one's surprise, the identity of the plane’s true owner, or owners, remains a mystery.
Plane-spotters prompt move to Cayman Trusts
The big question after the earlier April 28 incident concerned the company to whom the crashed Piper Navajo plane had been registered…
Aircraft Guaranty is a company which, for a fee, attempts to shield the ownership of American-registered aircraft behind a series of Cayman Islands trust accounts.
The Houston firm was founded in 1997 by “Doctor” Connie Woods, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. The company achieved notoriety several years ago when plane-spotters began noticing that the firm “owned” a number of airplanes fingered by planespotters around the world for allegedly belonging to the CIA and being used in “extraordinary renditions.”
“According to the Federal Aviation Agency in the United States, the aircraft is owned by Aircraft Guaranty & Trust of Houston,” The Miami Herald reported.
Not exactly. Who actually owns the plane is anybody's guess.
The exception proves the rule.
The downed plane was merely registered to Aircraft Guaranty, in a trust arrangement that seems the very definition of a "legal fiction."
Aircraft Guaranty is the brainchild of Connie Wood, a former senior FAA official who owns Aircraft Guaranty, the company to whom the downed plane was registered. Despite its tiny size, more than six hundred American aircraft are registered to the firm.
It’s “a boon for well heeled U.S. owners seeking personal liability protection and ownership anonymity,” Wood told the Mooney Pilot.
The aviation magazine reported, “He predicts soon full FAA-approved and legal Off-Shore (as in the Cayman Islands) Aviation Trusts will be THE way most liability conscious and financially established owner/pilots will opt to take title to their aircraft… It promises to be far better than a typical corporate entity in protecting the beneficiary from personal liability exposure.”
The Houston firm's trusts exist to disguise the ownership of general aviation aircraft from an inquiring public. The true owner of the crashed plane remains shrouded in the mystery of an Offshore Aviation Trust.
Except for one little detail… In addition to the registration documents which the FAA makes available, in the case of aircraft held in trusts the agency keeps what a spokesman called "ancillary records," which the FAA will provide… if they are asked for specifically.
So we did. Ask for them, that is.
The "original foreign pilot examiner for the FAA"
These documents reveal that the plane was owned by an entity called 700 Aviation LLC. They offer no clues, however, as to where "700 Aviation" might be registered, and so even to hint at suggesting that Pat Robertson might be involved would be not just wishful thinking, but wrong.
Wood is a former U.S. Lt. Colonel who one aviation magazine (Mooney Pilot) stated is “the original Foreign Pilot Examiner for the FAA, where he personally served as prototype in the FAA’s Foreign Pilot Examiner test bed program.”
“Wood is the only such FAA Foreign Pilot Examiner Designee licensed to operate outside the U.S.,” the magazine reported. “Uniquely, this allows Wood to issue FAA Licenses to non-residents outside the U.S. without the applicant ever entering the U.S.”
His role in the grand scheme of things, if one there be) seemed to clear up a little after we spoke with someone who has known him professionally for years.
Finally, someone mentions the greed.
“Probably the biggest reason people shield the ownership of their planes through trusts like Aircraft Guaranty is just plain old greed,” the aviation executive stated.
“The states are getting increasingly sophisticated in tracking down plane owners to collect use taxes, like sales tax on airplane sales, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Owners have responded by placing their planes in Cayman Island-type trusts that are very difficult to penetrate.”
“Connie Woods is a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, one of those guys who still looks and acts like he’s in the military," an aviation executive said.
"I don’t believe he’d be too interested in helping enemies of the United States to hide their ownership of American planes. A shady Lebanese businessman from the terrorist-infested Triangle region in South America wouldn’t get far with him, I can assure you.”
"Nor would he want to help drug traffickers," he continued. "Someone like a Colombian 'businessman' with lots of cash and a made-up resume wouldn’t approach Connie.”
Murky picture of a Perfect Storm
Chavez is, of course, a key figure in the growing leftist challenge to U.S. influence in Latin America. He sometimes refers to President Bush as "Mr. Dangerous.”
So just what is going on?
What can it tell us about the current strained relations between the Bush Administration and Chavez?
Might their relationship be a little closer than either man is letting on?
On the face of it, the story of a crash in Venezuela of a turboprop light business plane would be an unremarkable event. But this crash was different.
The plane was chartered by a man whose software is embedded in electronic voting machines used in 19 American states, who has been credibly accused of fixing a special election held to remove Hugo Chavez from office.
It was being flown by a full-time drug pilot and part-time “inmate” of a Hugo Chavez-controlled Venezuelan prison.
What was a veteran drug pilot doing ferrying around a figure prominent in election rigging scandals and linked to Hugo Chavez… in a plane registered to a Houston company known to to act as a front to shield from public scrutiny planes being used by the CIA?
For anyone interested in news that doesn't often make it into the newspaper anymore—the “left out news”— this story is something of a Perfect Storm.