Friday, September 28th, 2007
Jay Root and Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy Newspapers
September 28, 2007
MEXICO CITY – The four tons of cocaine found aboard a U.S.-registered business jet that crashed in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Monday belonged to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, this country’s most notorious drug trafficker, Mexican authorities said Friday.
The business jet that was transporting the dope to Mexico from Colombia was purchased just a week before the crash by a U.S. pilot with a history of legal and financial problems in Florida, interviews and official records indicate, but whether the pilot still owned the plane at the time of its crash is unknown.
The complex sale of the Gulfstream II jet and its end in the Mexican jungle highlight the increasingly complicated illicit drug trade. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the trade generates as much as $23 billion a year for Mexico-based drug cartels.
U.S. authorities say as much as 90 percent of the cocaine sold in the U.S. is shipped through Mexico.
At least three suspects, including a Mexican pilot, are in Mexican custody. Mexican authorities say two of the men offered them money if they would give back the cocaine and release any crewmembers.
The Gulfstream II departed Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sept. 18. In the days between then and the plane’s crash, it apparently flew to Mexico, then to Colombia and was on its way back to Mexico when Mexican anti-drug aircraft intercepted it.
“The cocaine was to be delivered to El Chapo,” said an official in the Mexican attorney general’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We do know it was from Colombia.”
Guzman has acquired an almost mythic status in Mexico. After breaking out of jail in 2001, he has repeatedly eluded capture and is revered in some parts of this impoverished nation as a Robin Hood figure who distributes some of his ill-gotten gains to the poor.
How the U.S.-registered Gulfstream ended up in the hands of Guzman’s violent Sinaloa Cartel isn’t clear.
A bill of sale obtained by McClatchy Newspapers indicates that Florida pilot Clyde O’Connor bought the plane on Sept. 16 – eight days before it went down in the Yucatan jungle. Another Florida pilot, identified by his license number and signature as Greg Smith, also signed the document, but his relationship to O’Connor isn’t detailed.
According to electronic court records, O’Connor, 42, was found guilty of criminal safety violations – described as “improper/insufficient safety equipment or lights” – in 2001. Records also show two bankruptcy filings, one in 1997 and another in 1998.
Ten years later, his financial problems apparently had abated. Two Brazilians – the last registered owners of the plane – said O’Connor wired them $2 million to purchase the business jet earlier this month.
The Brazilians provided McClatchy with the bill of sale, but the Federal Aviation Administration said it hadn’t received the change-of-ownership paperwork.
Attempts to reach O’Connor and Smith weren’t successful; the listed phone number for one of O’Connor’s companies, Execstar Aviation in Fort Lauderdale, was disconnected.
Interviewed by phone from the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, one of the Brazilians, Joao Luiz Malago, said Friday that O’Connor and Smith had told him they planned to resell the aircraft. The FAA confirmed that the two men are licensed Florida pilots in good standing.
Malago said O’Connor struck a hard bargain, negotiating him down from a desired sale price of $2.3 million to $2 million.
“This guy was a pain,” recalled Malago. “Finally we got to a point that we found a good number for me and for him was $2 million.”
Logs found on a plane-tracking Web site, www.flightaware.com, show that a flight plan was filed for the Gulfstream two days later for a trip from Fort Lauderdale to Cancun, but who piloted the craft is unknown. FAA records show that neither O’Connor nor Smith was certified to fly a multiengine aircraft like the Gulfstream. The plane crashed near Merida, 200 miles from Cancun.
Getting to the bottom of the plane’s ownership and circuitous trajectory are key pieces of a criminal investigation that Mexican authorities are conducting with the aid of American diplomats and law enforcement, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, officials said.
“U.S. law enforcement and other government authorities are still looking into the history of the plane and its ownership and any possible implications that would have for criminal activity,” said Judith Bryan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.
Malago and his business partner, Eduardo Dias Guimaraes, had owned the plane only since August, when their Florida-based Donna Blue Aircraft, an aviation sales company, bought the plane from a holding company owned by New York real estate developer and thoroughbred horse owner William Achenbaum.
Adding to the plane’s mystery are allegations that it made trips in 2003, 2004 and 2005 between the United States and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. detention center for suspected terrorists is located.
Employees of Achenbaum wouldn’t discuss how the plane was used while he owned it. They referred calls to William Cripe, who runs Air Rutter International in Long Beach, Calif. Cripe said he leased the plane for a year until it was sold, using it in his charter service. He said the plane didn’t fly to Cuba or to the Caribbean while his company operated it.