EXCLUSIVE: Drug Traffickers Own Jenni Rivera Death Plane

The owner of the Learjet  whose crash in Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains killed popular singer Jenni Rivera is from a prominent family in Monterrey which supplied drug planes during the 1990’s to drug baron Amador Carrillo, known as “The Lord of the Skies” for flying tons of cocaine, often on Boeing 727’s, into the U.S.

50-year old Christian Eduardo Esquino-Nunez is the owner—at least, on paper—of Starwood Management LLC, the Las Vegas aviation charter company which is the registered owner of the crashed Lear jet.  

It is, at best, a legal fiction.

Virtually nothing about him should be taken at face value.  And with good reason: he lives in a web of international intrigue.

One example: Eduardo Esquino-Nunez was part of a conspiracy last year to smuggle Moammar Khadafy’s son, Saadi Gaddafi, into Mexico.

He was contacted, he said, by a representative of a Canadian developer who asked for a Mexican-registered aircraft charter to North Africa.

Even more telling: he was one of four people arrested and imprisoned  while awaiting trial.  Yet, alone among the four, he was recently and mysteriously released. And, according to an interesting English language blog in Mexico City, he is scheduled to testify this Friday in Mexico City about his role in the plot.

Do such things 'just happen' in Mexico? Did he just get lucky? Or is Eduardo Esquino-Nunez, perhaps, really well-connected?

"No matter how cynical you get, it's hard to keep up"

(If you answered (c), you're probably also aware of the truth of Lily Tomlin's statement.

Eduardo Esquino-Nunez's family ties with major drug traffickers were first exposed when, during his campaign for the Mexican Presidency in 1994, (and before his assassination) PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio used a plane (a Sabreliner SC 80) that had been owned by (the already dead) Amada Carrillo Fuentes.

Still, it was reported by a Mexico City reporter named Juan Ruiz Healy, who exposed the Esquino-Nunez brothers sordid ties in Monterey with various and sundry Mexican gangsters and politicians.

Colosio was provided the drug baron’s plane by a “company” called Air Siesta, Inc., located at Meacham Airport in Fort Worth, Texas, owned by Ed Nunez’s brother, Salvador Esquino Nunez (also deceased.)

It was a minor scandal, like the one in the U.S. a decade ago after we discovered Texas Governor George W Bush was flying around on–of all things!--one of Barry Seal’s (also deceased) favorite airplanes, when some people drew a sharp breath, if only for a moment.

And it revealed the interesting fact that the Esquino-Nunez brothers were already well-known in, um, certain quarters.

Nooks & crannies, warp and hum

It begins on a Saturday night in Monterrey, the northern industrial capital of Mexico. After performing a concert before more than 15,000 fans, singer Jenni Rivera and her small entourage, including her lawyer and manager, prepare for take-off for Toluca, a general aviation airport just outside Mexico City. (More on that later.)

She is being flown aboard an aging Lear Jet owned by Starwood Management. But why was a woman on the cusp of a huge show-biz cross-over success flying in a 45-year old plane?

The true story of the death of Jenni Rivera, which has not yet been revealed, will be like one of those rumors about a ‘funny’ uncle that get told in a self-deprecating tone, but passed along anyway, just in case… and later turn out to be true.

It’s the story of the infiltration of the gargantuan international drug trade into every nook and cranny in the warp and fabric of modern life, which is the elephant in the living room that no one wants to talk about.

Something's burning

Examples are everywhere.  Start with the crash site.

Victoriano Escobedo, a shepherd in the mountains of Nuevo Leon, sees it first, in the distance, between two mountains.

Something is burning.

To get there—15 miles from Galeana—you have to walk five miles through the mountains, in this rough part of the Sierra Madre Oriental, then two more across a plateau.

The authorities arrive in heavy-duty trucks. From Monterrey, but not from the nearest town, Galeana. All 35 local police officers in Galeana were recently taken into custody, and they have not yet been replaced.

There was no notice or explanation. None was needed.  The empty police station spoke volumes.

Local residents serve as guides to the arriving authorities. There is no hurry. There are only small pieces left, of the plane, and of human remains, they tell the Federales, strewn across a stony landscape.

The Libyan Connection

Jenni Rivera, 43, known as "La Diva de la Banda," was born in Long Beach, California to a family of Mexican immigrants.

She received numerous awards, sold over 15 million albums, was nominated for several Grammy’s, and after several successful reality shows was being groomed for her own show on ABC.

Not surprisingly for someone in show business, she’d had her own brush with the law. Customs Agents at the Mexico City Airport found her carrying $50,000 in undeclared cash into the country.

But she got “lucky,” and was let off with a warning.

Eduardo Esquino-Nunez recently served two years in the federal penitentiary at Lompoc California. Upon his release was deported from the U.S.  Then, somehow, Ed Nunez got 'lucky' too.

Less than a year later, his wholly-owned Starwood Management “owned” a fleet of more than a dozen aircraft, including a half-dozen luxury Gulfstream’s, three or four Hawker Siddeley 600’s, a twin-engine mid-sized corporate jet, several Dassault Falcons, and some twin-engine Cessna’s and Beechcraft King Airs.

Did Esquino-Nunez strike it rich making license plates while in prison?

Even if he did, he owes millions in back taxes and fines to the U.S. Government. His Starwood Management filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Norma Gonzalez, the only listed officer, is his sister-in-law.

So the true owner of the Lear 25 (N345MC) that plowed into a mountain at 600 miles per hour killing a beloved cross-over Mexican-American singer is—pretty much—anyone’s guess.

And, pretty much, that is just how the U.S. Government’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) likes it.

The Toluca Connection

Starwood’s air charters are currently being run out of Toluca, whose airport in recent years has been at the center of numerous major drug trafficking scandals, many of which have been extensively covered here.

In June, the DEA subpoenaed Norma Gonzalez of Starwood Management LLC, seeking documents related to a San Diego security firm as part of a controlled substances investigation.

In a transparent ruse similar to one used by wily old Uber-Mob boss Meyer Lansky 40 years ago,  who listed his hotels—including famous resorts, like the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach—in the names of strippers and prostitutes who worked in his clubs, Norma Gonzalez, Eduardo Nunez's sister-in-law, is listed as the sole officer of Starwood Management. Her signature is on all FAA registration documents.

Here's a question: Does the FAA know about this? Here's a better one: How could they not?

At the San Diego phone number listed on registration documents for some of Starwood Management's fleet of planes, there is a voicemail message, left by a male voice, saying, “Hi, please leave me a message.”

It is as terse and uninformative as the information Starwood Management LLC provides to the FAA.

The American Connection

Being fingered for responsibility in the death of a beloved singer…Being charged with conspiring to help the son of a ruthless dictator avoid facing the music in his own country…

Christian Eduardo Esquino-Nunez's current imbroglio's mark him as a member in good standing in a ring of well-connected financial fraudsters and soldiers-of-fortune-turned-private-security-contractors, many of whom have been accused—and convicted—for a variety of high profile crimes, including drug trafficking, securities fraud, and money laundering.

Take Jasper Knabb.  Until his conviction earlier this year for a $30 million stock swindle, Knabb was the CEO of publicly-traded Pegasus Wireless Corp.

Esquino-Nunez has extensive business connections with Knabb, including using one of his own shell companies to finance Knabb’s Gulfstream II luxury jet.

Jasper Knabb is part of Ed Nunez's American connection.

So, did he own Starwood's 14 planes? Probably not. But we're getting warmer. He may have fronted the money for whoever did.

When Knabb was sentenced in June, something extraordinary happened, which tells us something about Jasper Knabb, Eduardo Esquino-Nunez, and the whole issue of state-sponsored aviation crime (otherwise known as "drug trafficking.")

At Knabb's sentencing, prosecutors were seeking a sentence of seven years and three months, while defense lawyers argued for three years and four months.

But U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White smelled a rat, and sentenced Knabb to 21 years in federal prison—nearly three times as long as the term sought by government prosecutors.

“I give very little credit to what the government has done,” said Judge White in an extraordinary summation. “I don’t think they have adequately, accurately, or aggressively pursued the money this man (Knabb) stole.”

From the bench, White told Knabb he had caused “unspeakable … misery” to investors who’d lost their life savings.  “His instinct has always been to lie and cheat,” the judge said.

And he ordered Knabb jailed immediately after the hearing.

What makes this an American scandal

Esquino-Nuñez has had numerous run-ins with the law.

A decade ago he was indicted in Florida for providing drug planes to traffickers busted while smuggling half a ton of cocaine into South Florida from Colombia.He later spent two years in Lompoc Federal Penitentiary for aircraft fraud. Then, as previously stated, at the end of his sentence he was deported from the U.S.

More recently he was accused by the DEA of providing planes to facilitate operations for a remnant of the Tijuana Cartel. The allegation remains unproven.

What Ed Nunez's record has to do with Jenni Rivera's fatal crash on one of his planes is simple. For such people—who sneer at weak enforcement at the SEC, the FAA, and the DEA—a fast buck beats properly maintaining airplanes, which is why, when a drug plane gets busted, more often than not it's because–owing to poor maintenence–the plane experienced mechanical difficulties. 

Drug pilot Michael Brassington, currently in prison, provides the perfect example.

Christian Eduardo Esquino-Nunez, convicted of numerous felonies and then deported, couldn’t even vote in most states. He probably couldn't even get a drivers license.  Yet he is listed as the owner of record of more than a dozen American-registered airplanes.

So the biggest crime in this story isn’t something Christian Eduardo Esquino-Nunez did. The biggest crime is U.S. government malfeasance.

Because of the laissez-faire attitude of the FAA—which knows less about who owns luxury $40 million luxury jets than the California Department of Motor Vehicles does about the owner of a 10-year old used car—Jenni Rivera, a popular Mexican American “cross-over” singer as well as the mother of five children, is dead.

But Jenni Rivera's tragedy has, at least, some meaning. Because of it, we know that there are more than a dozen American-registered aircraft out there whose true owner is someone the FAA doesn't want us to know about. 

That should be a national scandal. But its not, which speaks volumes about the infiltration of the drug trade into political life in–not Mexico–but the United States of America.

Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.

21 Responses

  1. December 12, 2012

    […] EXCLUSIVE: Drug Traffickers Own Jenni Rivera Death Plane Posted in December 12th, 2012 by Editor in Miami   Tags: miami, news TweetShare via email […]

  2. December 13, 2012

    […] EXCLUSIVE: Drug Traffickers Own Jenni Rivera Death Plane Posted in December 12th, 2012 by Editor in Top Stories   Tags: miami, news TweetShare via email […]