An American-registered drug plane has been plying the airspace over Central and South America carrying cargoes of cocaine for a good long while (authorities admit they’ve been “investigating” it since 2011) without apparent incident, until recently, when a newspaper in Costa Rica reported that the President of Costa Rica had been seen using it to fly to Hugo Chavez’s funeral, as well as the recent wedding of the son of Peru's Vice-President in Lima.
This was one of at least three seismic events recently which have shaken the drug trafficking industry. Most readers have probably only heard of one: the raid by Marines from the Mexican Navy last week near the US border in Nuevo Laredo that captured Los Zetas cartel kingpin Miguel Angel Trevino.
A predictably huge dose of back-patting and drug-war optimism ensued with his capture among U.S. and Mexican officials. The second most powerful Mexican cartel—Los Zetas—had been dealt, they said, a potentially fatal blow.
But, at a glance, Miguel Trevino doesn’t look like the kind of guy who is comfortable discussing laundering the billions of dollars his cartel makes with personal bankers at Wells Fargo or Deutche Bank.
Instead, he resembles the kind of guy who hides his savings in his boots.
"Real drug lords don't get their names in the papers"
So to find a real drug kingpin, it would seem—a guy (or gal) charged with recycling the billions kicked out each and every year by the illegal drug trade—one needs to look further afield, or to events which don't receive much publicity in the US, perhaps because they don’t conform to the DEA’s narrative about the “war on drugs."
Simply stated the DEA's story (and they're sticking to it) is this: Operating from hide-outs in the mountains of Sinaloa and million-acre ranches in the Sonora desert, goes this narrative, with bandoliers loaded with spare ammunition strapped across their bare chests, Mexican drug lords direct the worldwide drug trade.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In almost every country in which drugs are a factor, a corrupt elite in that country controls that country's drug trade.
(In Peru, for example, a reporters task force discovered that jets belonging to the Peruvian Air Force, and controlled by that country’s President Alberto Fujimori and intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesino, had for years been flying secret flight to Russia loaded with cocaine.)
Speaking of a “corrupt elite,” the recent troubles of the President of Costa Rica are instructive.
You mean, almost as soon as Obama left town?
Just six weeks ago, Laura Chinchilla was hosting visiting American President Barack Obama. "The stronger the economy and institutions, the weaker the drug trade," Obama told a joint new conference. “The war on drugs is the same everywhere.”
After a 22-hour stop, Obama trotted energetically across the tarmac to board Air Force One, waving good-bye from the top of the steps. Mission accomplished: greetings, photo ops, and a message left on the table.
Just a few days later, news broke that the President of Costa Rica—known to her faithful as Dona Laura—had flown to Venezuela for Hugo Chavez’s funeral, as well as to Peru for the wedding of the Peruvian Vice-President’s son, aboard a luxury jet belonging to Colombian drug traffickers.
The discovery was a big story all over Latin America. It was, in Wolf Blitzer's phrase, "happening now." And it set off a scandal which threatened to bring down Laura Chinchilla's government.
In the US, there was a UPI wire service story buried in the business section.
Chinchilla announced she was suspending all public appearances, and asked the press for "understanding" while she focused on taking "corrective actions."
It was a very, as it happens, popular plane
It bought her a day. But the facts were incontrovertible. The flights took place aboard an American-registered Citation 3 jet (tail number N93CW) which has flown at least 26 recent flights to Fort Lauderdale, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Colombia.
So, instead of challenging them, President Chinchilla claimed it had all been a big misunderstanding. She had been unaware that the plane she’d been flying aboard spent more time hauling loads of cocaine than it did flying government officials to weddings and funerals.
She had been—in a now time-honored phrase—victimized by unscrupulous employees.
As if to prove her point, over the event-filled next few days she threw under the bus the nation’s intelligence chief, Mauricio Boraschim along with another member of her Cabinet, Minister of Communication Francisco Chacon( ironically, also Costa Rica’s drug czar), and even Chinchilla’s personal assistant.
All three were forced to resign. This seemed to quell, at least temporarily, the swelling calls for her resignation.
As it turns out, a number of Latin American politicians and celebrities have at one time or another flown on the plane. Topping the list of travelers would be Laura Acuna, a television presenter and one of Colombia’s top models.
Also aboard has been Andres Fernandez Acosta, Colombia’s former Minister of Agriculture; as well as Juan Pablo Ortiz Bravo who occupied the strategic position of Director of Customs under President Alvaro Uribe.
One Bogotá columnist speculated, tongue firmly in cheek, about the reason so many celebrities and politicians were traveling on the plane of, and in the company of a controversial character and alleged drug trafficker.
There must be, he wrote, a lack of seats available on commercial airlines
"Complicated and complex situations from a criminal point of view"
The story has a big—and, predictably, largely unexamined—American component. But Latin American newspapers seemed less than eager to confront it.
Mauricio Boraschi, soon-to-be-the- ex-Costa Rican intelligence chief, offered a defense that, as an admission of guilt, could not be more revealing about the true nature of drug lords in Central, South, and North America.
“Linked to very complicated and complex situations from a criminal point of view” turned out to mean that Morales had at some point offered to become an informant for the DEA.
But apparently nobody told the by-now professionally clueless Dona Laura.
The alleged drug trafficker, Gabriel Morales Fallon, told Latin American journalists that nothing untoward was going on, because the plane, which he admitted controlling, was actually owned and registered to a large American corporation, Cessna Finance.
The plane belongs to THX Energy, a company reporters learned was being controlled by Gabriel Morales Falan, who was a long-time lieutenant of one of South America’s leading drug traffickers. Colombian newspapers have for years linked Morales to Juan Carlos Ramirez, alias "Chupeta," until his arrest in Brazil.
And the Cessna Citation 3 Jet is indeed owned by Cessna Finance Corp of Wichita Kansas, and leased to an oil company, THX Energy, that is a subsidiary of a Canadian capital company called Birch Island Capital.
"A failed agricultural effort to export palm oil?"
The President and CEO of Birch is one Ron MacMicken, who is also a Director of Tolima Gold, Sintana Energy, and Santa Maria Petroleum (TSXV:SMQ), which bills itself as "a public junior oil and gas exploration company in Colombia."
MacMicken, his online bio says, is a former Managing Director of Investment Banking at Canaccord Genuity Corp, and claims to have been the “Lead financier and financial advisor of in aggregate over $1 billion of oil & gas transactions in the last three years.”
The problem— if there is one—is that the oil company he runs seem to observers to be a little… thin.
Currently it is trading at 04. a share.
Laura Chinchilla was alleged to have personal links to THX Energy, at least until sources revealed that in Costa Rica the company is involved—not in oil exploration—but a failed effort to export palm oil.
The parent company, Birch Island Capital, is itself owned by a US firm out of—of all places—Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It's called Delavaco Capital, which is owned in turn by Andy DeFrancesco, who used to own night clubs in Toronto.
Today Andy sponsors a racing team and appears happy and prosperous.
Is everything kosher here? Who knows? A better question might be: Is it ever?