It starts out like a Jason Bourne movie. There’s a plane. A body. And mountains of cash (67 tons of it) on pallets running the length of a cavernous wide-body cargo plane.
The MD-11 wide-body cargo jet is enroute from Munich to Durban, South Africa carrying what will later be called a “diplomatic shipment” for the South African Reserve Bank.
Initial reports state the plane made either A. an emergency landing at the airport in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, as stated in initial reports. Or B. making a routine scheduled refueling stop, according to a press release put out three days later by the owners of the plane.
Always go with the smart money
The wide-body cargo plane impounded in Harare belongs to “Western Global Airlines,” a Florida airline that is the successor to a long-time CIA subsidiary which itself is no stranger to blood dripping down the fuselage.
“Western Global Airlines” was once known as “Southern Air Transport.” The same management owns it today that brought Southern Air out of bankruptcy back in 2002. So the plane belongs to a CIA contractor.
When Western Global started service, the airline announced, but probably not tongue-in-cheek, that it would “serve the major cargo centers of South America, where they will be flying from Colombia to Miami carrying cut flowers.”
But there’s another reason that’s the real clincher: The crisis PR firm the airline hires to release the press release did PR for the Minnesota dentist who killed “Cecil the Lion.”
No wonders the American electorate in both parties is so worried about national decline.
“Somebody call the cops”
When the ground crew at Harare International Airport comes out to refuel the plane, they’re horrified to see blood dripping down the fuselage. The plane’s crew dismisses it. Its led by two Americans, who claim they hit a bird earlier. Somebody calls the cops.
“The ground crew refueling the plane alerted local authorities,” the Zimbabwe Herald reported. “Drops of blood were coming from a door, and state security officials stationed at the airport insisted it be opened.”
They make the pilot climb up the fuselage, and open the door leaking blood. What he finds: an adult male. No bird. No feathers.
“For some reason the pilot first put on latex gloves, and then opened the door, which is quite high up the aircraft,” an aviation insider told the Zimbabwe Herald. “And thwack, a fully clothed body of a black man fell out.”
“Thwack?” Okay. But the body only falls half-out, and for the next several hours the partially-severed arm of a dead man drips blood down the fuselage which wells into a puddle on the tarmac while things sort themselves out.
The crew probably now realize that they face a bit of a sticky wicket. A dead body onboard. Cause of death unknown. Name unknown. Nationality unknown.
Senior investigator’s got some big ones
When Senior Investigator Charamba arrives at the airport, and learns of the crew’s attempts to extricate themselves from the dripping blood thing by offering an alternative explanation, she orders the plane impounded, and the crew arrested or—accounts varied—detained. Until a post-mortem can be completed, she rules, the cargo plane will not be allowed to leave the country.
The decision can’t have been easy. Reporters have noted cars from the US embassy going in and out of the airport all day.
This is all big news at the airport in Zimbabwe. It’s the biggest thing to happen there since sixty mercenaries were busted in 2004—including, in absentia, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s son, Sir Mark—on their way to launch a coup in Equatorial Guinea.
Some of the coup plotters, like Simon Mann, did “five years in hell,” as one of them put it, in notorious Zimbabwe prison. Sir Mark, on the other hand, admitted guilt in South Africa, and paid a fine of $500,000.
His picture shows why. He’s got a head that’s too big to fail.
And this is germane because this is very much a story about the one percent.
Both of Western Global’s principals, for example, have owned homes on Miami’s exclusive Fisher Island.
When the brouhaha was all over six days later, the All Africa News Agency headline is “Cargo aircraft released, but questions remain.”
When CIA aviation assets are involved, that’s often the case.
Six Days In February
What’s interesting is what happens between the time the plane is busted, and the moment Zimbabwe police official Charity Charamba releases the plane after the autopsy of the unidentified body showed the cause of death was lack of oxygen, indicating the man was likely a stowaway.
First, there’s the money. The plane’s carrying a lot of it.
The next day, South Africa Reserve Bank spokesman in Durban say the bank is making frantic efforts to ensure that its cargo was released and transported to South Africa immediately.
The MD-11 aircraft was enroute from Munich to Durban, South Africa carrying a “diplomatic shipment” for the South African Reserve Bank, said the bank in its initial press release.
What was initially a “diplomatic shipment “quickly becomes “millions of rands.”
The Associated Press reports the plane is carrying “millions of rands,” the currency of South Africa, on its way to South Africa’s Central Bank. A million rands, the report noted helpfully, was about US $60,000.
“Millions of rands,” the AP story seems to suggest, means roughly several hundred thousand dollars.
Several hundred thousand dollars is an interesting aside., but no big deal, right? Every day, Goldman Sachs executives altogether probably spend more on lunch.
Still, despite the small sum, increasingly elaborate explanations are issued from the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). On the third day after the jet was impounded the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) issued a statement admitting the plane was carrying more than a few million rand.
“The aircraft currently detained at Harare Airport is carrying a consignment of South African banknotes that was produced overseas as part of the SARB’s annual production plan, says their press release the next day.
“The bulk of the annual production of banknotes is done locally in South Africa and a small percentage is done offshore as part of the contingency plans of the SARB.”
The next day, there’s more:
“The SARB, in the normal course of its currency operations, adheres to sound business practices and has business contingency planning arrangements in place to secure a continued supply of banknotes to the economy. These arrangements are put in place to mitigate any major disruption in the domestic banknote operations.”
Why is mention of any of this necessary? Had someone asked for an explanation for the cash, and found the answer unavailing?
Stacked on pallets in the cargo hold of Western Global Airlines MD-11 wide-body cargo plane is 57 tons of South African currency.
By the time the plane is released, that figures will have increased by another 10 tons.
In Zimbabwe, a country flirting with bankruptcy, chaos and starvation, it must have appeared as if manna had just rained from the skies.
Zimbabwe’s Big WTF moment
But what was the plane doing landing in Harare in the first place? Sources reported the US freight company had never landed in Harare before. The US pilot was unknown in aviation circles in Zimbabwe.
“The US pilot was “vague” about why he needed permission to land in Harare. The transcripts show three requests and none are clear. But he was flying low and so probably did therefore use a lot of fuel,” law enforcement sources said.
The Herald reported “A Western Global Airlines MD-11 enroute from Germany to South Africa performed an emergency landing in Harare (Zimbabwe) after being denied landing in Maputo (Mozambique).”
Senior Police Official Charamba said, “The plane tried to land in Mozambique, ‘because of technical problems’ but was refused permission to land. Only then did it divert to Harare.”
She said the plane’s crew failed to contact their company so they could land at King Tshaka Airport in Durban.
Aviation sources on the Internet were puzzled. From Munich to Maputo, then backtrack to Harare instead of continuing on to Durban? (See map.)
Speculation in aviation circles in Harare is that the US crew was trying to dump the body over Mozambique but could not open the ENA door from inside the aircraft because of cabin pressure so landed to refuel in Harare and somehow dump the body after taking off again.
Earliest lie in a story about the CIA?
Take the coverage in the New York Times. Like a UFC fighter looking for the record for the earliest knockout, the paper lies in its very first sentence:
Since The Times was shameless enough to lie in the lead, it should come as no surprise that they close with a pitch for those go-getters and real humanitarians at “Western Global Airlines.”
“Western Global Airlines, which is privately owned, advertises itself as one of the world’s fastest-growing low-cost air cargo companies, with clients around the world. It flew dozens of humanitarian missions to West Africa during the height of the Ebola crisis.”
Isn’t that getting a little old?
Predatory rich, sure. But patriotic.
“Western Global Airlines” is just the latest non-descript moniker (if it’s ‘Western, can it also be Global?’) slapped onto a cargo carrier that for decades has been hauling cargo for the CIA. The same management has managed to stay aboard through a bewildering number of name changes.
Western Global is two men: James K. Neff and Randall P. Fiorenza.
Let’s let the company’s own press tell part of the tale. “Southern Air exits bankruptcy” reported finance and business magazine The Deal on August 20, 2003.
“Southern Air Inc., the successor to CIA-backed Southern Air Transport, has emerged from Chapter 11 as a scaled-down cargo carrier. Founder and CEO James Neff filed a $2.5 million claim for the only major secured debt.”
“The company transports freight for foreign carriers like Korean Air and Lufthansa, and has also done some work for the U.S. government, particularly the Department of Defense.”
Older Americans may be a bit harder to fool. They remember General Richard Secord, who owned Southern Air during the Iran Contra Scandal, when its C-123 and C-130 military cargo planes were flying weapons down to Central America from Mena Arkansas, and returning with cocaine.
Remember Barry Seal? “El Gordo?” In the upcoming “Mena” Seal is played by Tom Cruise, who looks like Seal might look… if he’d just been released after a year of starvation in a prison in North Korea.
“Cecil,We Hardly Knew Ye”
While this story starts like a covert war thriller, it unfortunately ends on a note all too familiar to an American electorate uneasy at what it perceive to be our national decline.
On the second day after CIA-affiliated Western Global Airlines’ wide-body cargo jet was impounded in Zimbabwe, they hired a crisis public relations firm.
Austin & Associates put out a release denying the plane’s detour had been an emergency. The plane had made ‘a routine fuel stop’ in Zimbabwe. Said the release: “During a routine fuel stop in Zimbabwe, a body was found in the lower compartment. The body is presumed to be a stowaway who may have entered the airplane during a previous stop. The situation is currently under review.”
Incredibly, they chose the company that did crisis PR for a Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the Lion during a hunting trip in Zimbabwe, an effort that hadn’t worked out particularly well.
“On Tuesday, the world lost its collective mind – whatever is left of it, anyway – when media discovered the identity of the killer of a Zimbabwean named Cecil the Lion,” said the industry website, Everything PR. “The man who shot Cecil is a dentist who paid $55,000 for a big game permit, then hired a guide to lure Cecil out from a protected area. For his craven behavior he was vilified all around the world. Lets hope Western Global Airlines, the sleazy airline with bleeding bodies, dead people and tons of cash fares no better.”
Cecil The Lion fans hounded the dentist—who wasn’t even with the CIA—for months.