It was a Friday the 13th to remember at Josefa Camejo Airport in the Venezuelan state of Falcon, when the airport, serving a remote region jutting out into the Caribbean at the country's furthest northwest point, became the scene of a Wild West shoot-out between two rival law enforcement agencies.
The bone of contention was a "ghost" drug plane carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine. One Venezuelan newspaper called it a "megacargamento." It was sitting on the tarmac preparing to take off.
The two police forces were clearly mismatched—one was a 60-man ‘special operations’ unit from Venezuela’s Federal Police, (CISPIC) bolstered by agents from Venezuela's National Anti-Drug Office (ONA). On the other side was 6-8 lightly armed state police officers, lounging in a knot smoking cigarettes while pretending to guard the plane.
The Federal force swooped in, rushing the plane as it began revving its engines to leave.
That’s when the fireworks started. There was a brief but fierce firefight. Two men were slain. Several agents on both sides were wounded.
One of the dead men, Pernia Luis Fuentes, was the 36-year-old co-pilot of the plane. He was a former member of Venezuela’s drug police gone bad, expelled from the country for drug trafficking six years ago.
The other man slain, the first person to die in the shootout, was an unarmed civilian, caught in the cross-fire. Edilberto Rosales Escalante, 38 years old, was identified by relatives at the morgue.
He'd been selling bananas at the airport.
What made the New World New
That makes this peninsula an especially popular choice as a jumping off point for drug flights… From here planes zig left across the Caribbean to Honduras, Belize, and the Yucatan.
Then the planes zag north to Mexico and the U.S.
At the tip of the peninsula are the beaches and sand dunes of Cabo San Roman. The first explorer to set foot here, arriving on a Spanish galleon in the summer of 1499, was Amerigo Vespucci, who would then sail east around the continent until he discovered the Amazon River.
That was the lure of the New World over the old.
The New World was a place where Amerigo Vespucci, a pickle-dealer from Seville, could put his name on a whole Hemisphere.
It's all about the red beret, isn't it?"
Why? Because the drug plane came in to Josepha Camejo Airport from where the cocaine had presumably been loaded, a secure military facility of the Venezuelan Armed Forces.
And not from some remote Venezuelan National Guard-type base somewhere out in the boondocks…
But from the Generalissimo Francisco de Miranda military air base, known as La Carlota, and situated embarrassingly close to downtown Caracas, capital city of the government of Hugo Chavez.
Exacerbating the situation even further is that the U.S. and Venezuela have been at loggerheads since 2005, when Hugo Chavez booted the DEA out of the country, accusing the Agency of spying and conspiring to bring down his regime.
Since then, as reported extensively here, the DEA has campaigned hard to apply a “drug kingpin” sticker to the brim of Mr. Chavez’s famously red beret. Chavez's coterie of cronies is said to include a number of Generals who comprise what one veteran Venezuelan drug smuggler called "The Cartel of the Sun.”
So politically, its a highly-sensitive environment. And now it looks as if Venezuelan law enforcement officials—state cops—were being paid to protect a drug trafficking flight from a Venezuelan military air base.
If nothing else, Hugo Chavez needs to begin pricing some high-end Washington lobbyists. He would need someone like Vernon Jordan to wriggle out of this one.
But don't count the apparent cancer survivor and wily old Raspberry Beret out just yet…
Because there's something extremely hinky about the plane.
A "ghost" drug plane
The aircraft caught at Josepha Camejo Airport in Venezuela, a twin-engine King Air, last registered in the U.S. as N467JB, is a “ghost” drug plane that has been haunting the Caribbean since being exported almost five years ago.
The plane is stateless and unregistered. It’s tags have expired. It’s got no plates. Officially, it does not exist.
Yet, wandering back and forth across the Caribbean Basin, it has suffered no ill effects from its lack of proper documentation. It landed and took off from La Carlotta, the secure Venezuelan military facility, with no reported difficulty.
Nor does it seem to suffer from a lack of things to do. Also, there's this… It's the plane's third major drug bust in the past three years. The ghost drug plane is a three-time loser.
If they put planes in prison, it would be doing 30-to-life in Pelican Bay.
The plane is clearly marked YV2531 (YV is the designation for planes from Venezuela, as "N" is for planes registered in the U.S.) Yet Venezuelan drug officials at first told reporters it was registered as YV2573.
It wasn't. But it wasn't YV2531 either. It was a "ghost."
After reporters verified it was 'listed,' if not registered, as YV2351, the officials offered no explanation for the discrepancy.
"I know nothing of any "banana man."
And so the day after the bust at Josepha Camejo Airport Venezuela’s Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami showed up to hold a press conference on the tarmac, using the plane as a backdrop.
The cocaine was laid out on the ground in a geometric fashion that ensured observers would know they were gazing upon an impressive display of swag.
Men in uniform watched over the kilos of cocaine, making sure none of it managed to slither away.
There is usually also The Perp Walk, which has become almost a religious rite in Latin America. The newly-damned wear manacles, and look contrite. Newly-captured drug smugglers are the poster boys for the idea that confession is good for the soul.
But no perp walk this time. The case might be considered too highly-sensitive politically for the men (and one woman) taken into custody to be paraded before the cameras, where someone in the media might shout out a question.
"The hard work and intelligence displayed by officials of the special operations group, in conjunction with the National Anti-Drug Office, ONA, has succeeded in dismantling a major organization dedicated to drug trafficking" said El Aissami.
"The result was the seizure of 1400 kilos of highly-pure cocaine.”
He said little about the shootout. “We arrested five state police officials and three civilians. Two people were killed. Bluntly, he said, "Our men were met with fire and responded.”
So much for the banana man.
Does he get to bring his medal to prison with him?
The Governor of the state of Falcon had been pressured into forcing his State Police Chief to resign. When he did, he was promptly arrested.
All well and good…
Except this was apparently the exact wrong time to be displaying this particular State Police Chief in an unflattering light. Just now, he was everybody's favorite uncle.
He had just been feted, in a ceremony covered extensively by the media, and his long and selfless service to the state lauded, as he was awarded a bright silver-looking medal on a sash. And it was presented to him by a top Venezuelan military Pooh-Bah who was wearing his uniform.
Extra points there.
A scandal that won't go away
Just before N467JB was exported from the U.S. the plane was sold to a Florida company called Eagle Supply, a "front" company ready to be discarded when necessary.
What also sets off bells and whistles is the company that sold the plane to Eagle Supply, just before it was exported, in what may have been a standard sheep-dipping move. Barnett Investments in LaVerne California was also involved, as if through some odd coincidence, in The Wachovia Bank Scandal.
Barnett Investments, a “doing business as” front for owner Jonathon P. Barnett, was named as one of the companies exporting American-registered planes to the Sinaloa Cartel using Wachovia-laundered cash in an FBI affidavit filed when Pedro Alatorre Damy, owner of the currency house in Mexico that laundered money through Wachovia, was charged with money laundering.
Barnett sold a twin-engine Beech King Air (N469JB) for $740,000 to the same buyers who bought N467JB, the ghost plane busted in Venezuela. Their names are Jorge Castro Barraza, Daniel Castro Medina, and Daniel Alejandro Picos Peraza. The title of N469JB was transferred to CR Aviation located in Culiacan, Mexico.
"The DEA concluded that the money with which it was originally purchased was derived from drug trafficking, and confiscated the plane," said the affidavit. Nobody claimed it.
The title to N467JB, the ghost drug plane busted in Venezuela, was transferred to JC Aviation in Culiacan.
There is no record in Culiacan of either company.
The Elephant in the People's Community Center
Within hours Venezuelan reporters and bloggers were asking questions that are disturbingly familiar to those who have questions about the American end of the drug trade.
How could a supposedly unregistered plane take off from the La Carlota military base, with or without drugs? Who allowed it? Who approved it? Who was involved?
Who knew about the cargo? Who checked the plane in? Who owns this aircraft? How can a plane which has been seized several times carrying drugs be allowed onto a Venezuelan military base?
Keeping their respective citizenry in the dark about matters concerning the global drug trade may be one of the only areas of agreement between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments.
The Venezuelan government responded to basic questions about the ghost drug plane's military connections with embarrassed silence.
A Venezuelan official finally announced that the government had been asked by the prosecutor not to talk about the case, and somewhat reluctantly, they had agreed.
Going through an "unlucky patch"
The twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air 200 plane landed at midnight right on Southern highway, one of the main north-south highways running through he country.
“It had two point 6 tons of the white stuff” reported a newspaper in Belize’s capital.
The plane had been abandoned. Its wings had clipped the tops of the trees alongside the highway. Now it couldn’t take off.
Five government police officers were arrested in an SUV in a nearby town, including the current and the former driver of the Governor General of Belize, Sir Colville Young. Anywhere else, that would be called a bit of a sticky wicket.
But before the plane could be busted in Belize, it had to be sprung from a secure military base near San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras—where it had been seized the previous year for drug trafficking—in a Mission Impossible-style commando raid.
It was busted and seized by government officials in Honduras. It escaped. Then it was busted in Belize in the biggest drug trafficking case in that nation's history.
How had the plane managed to live to smuggle again after that?
Micro to macro
Venezuelan authorities had apparently concluded, as the DEA had earlier, that Mankind’s knowledge of the ownership of luxury jets busted with multi-ton loads of cocaine is governed—like the movement of subatomic quarks—by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
The more influential the listed owner of the plane, the more uncertain identification becomes.
Prospects for positive identification were especially poor in the U.S. if the officially unidentified owner of the plane was associated with national figures in the Republican Party.
The whole business, suggested a story which ran on the Associated Press, quickly moves beyond the realm of human ken.
“How the U.S.-registered Gulfstream ended up in the hands of suspected drug traffickers remains a mystery,” reported the Associated Press.
And not by accident, either.