With fighter jets on its tail, a Cessna nine-seater streaked through the air over Las Marías, a tiny hamlet with unpaved roads and a single airstrip tucked deep in the Honduran jungle. The plane dipped and then came in for a landing.
Government troops, who had been alerted not long before 4 p.m., were waiting. They expected trouble. Just the day before, a drug gang had attacked an airbase in San Pedro Sula and stolen another aircraft.
After the Cessna, with a Colombian flag tattooed on its tail, came to a halt, soldiers surrounded it. Three men inside opened fire with automatic weapons. The commandos shot back, killing the plane's copilot. Two others, a Colombian named Mario Sánchez and an unidentified Guatemalan, surrendered.
When soldiers searched the plane, they discovered a bounty: assault weapons, pistols, three small boats with outboard motors, and 500 kilos of cocaine, most of it in bales, worth about $15 million on the street.
Benjamin Oliva, a spokesman for the military, declared it an important victory in the drug war: "The armed forces had to return fire from the drug traffickers, and we are now in control of the area," he said. "We intercepted the plane when it entered Honduras and our planes forced it to land. [We] now control the area."
But the story doesn't end there. The Cessna had arrived in Honduras after pinballing between Florida plane dealers. In 2008, a Miami company called Eagle Support Corporation had sold the plane to a Venezuelan firm, which peddled it to another Miami company called Skyline Enterprises. Then Skyline sold it to an individual in Colombia before it embarked on the doomed coke run in November 2010.
The backstory of the plane, and of others that passed through Eagle, opens a window on how the yearly flow of hundreds of metric tons of cocaine around the world gets an assist from Sunshine State aviation firms that might have no idea they're aiding drug traffickers. Call it the Florida connection.
"We check as much as we can the background of the people or the companies," says Gilbert Gonzalez, the head of Skyline Enterprises, which sold the Cessna into Colombia. But once the plane goes to a buyer overseas, "you could turn around and give it to your cousin... It's kind of hard to track."
No one from Skyline or Eagle has been accused of anything or charged with wrongdoing, and there's absolutely no evidence of guilt on their part. If there were, says Eagle CEO Hector Alfonso Schneider, he'd probably be in an orange jumpsuit in federal detention and not sitting behind a desk in a nondescript office decorated with family photos in Doral.
But Eagle's experience is a study in the hazards of selling private planes in Florida and the frequency with which such aircraft end up with traffickers. Of roughly 40 planes that Eagle has sold since 2004, one wound up confiscated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and three others were connected in some other way to the drug trade, according to U.S. and Venezuelan court documents and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records.
Eagle was at least two steps removed from drug traffickers in the case of the coke-laden Cessna. In other cases, though, planes were directly sold to those who American and Venezuelan authorities say employed the aircraft in the drug trade. Eagle CEO Schneider emphasizes his firm abhors the drug trade and had no idea customers were traffickers. "All brokers have the same problem," he says.
Indeed, New Times reviewed news reports, court documents, and FAA records for approximately 150 planes implicated in drug smuggling since 2000 and found 24 Florida companies that might have sold aircraft directly to traffickers.
In fact, during this period, Florida was apparently the largest source of drug planes in the United States, followed by Delaware, where strict corporate secrecy rules have allowed for the cancerous proliferation of shell companies that can provide cover for buying and selling drug planes. Most of the Florida companies were in or near Miami. And most of the aircraft were sold into Venezuela, which has become an aviation Wild West whose lawlessness seeps into the Sunshine State.
Even under American law, "to buy an aircraft doesn't require a lot of screening," notes Carlos Vasquez, an Eagle employee. "It's really hard for us to spot who is who," he says, adding the traffickers "build shell companies" or use intermediaries to create an air of legitimacy. Lawyers, escrow accounts, and corporate anonymity make it difficult for brokers to know exactly who their customers are.
Hundreds of planes have been linked to the drug trade in the past two decades, and it's possible many were acquired with laundered money, either from the manufacturer or through brokers. "Is law enforcement monitoring that?" says Julie Bunck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville who co-wrote a book about the drug trade, Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America. "They ought to be if they're not."
Last year, prosecutors convicted a broker in San Diego of selling 35 Cessna planes to traffickers. But New Times found two instances in which the United States seized drug planes and then transferred them, apparently in public sales, to convicted felons — one of whom had been involved in the Florida drug trade in the '90s and another who outlandishly claimed to have smuggled drugs for the CIA.
If the government is unwittingly selling seized planes back to shady people, how can private firms be expected to do any better?
Airplanes have been used to move contraband almost since the Wright brothers took their first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In 1911, Italian pilot Antonio Smeroglio crashed while trying to smuggle goods over the Alps. He broke both legs and his collarbone but survived to be arrested.
The smuggling of cocaine, a niche pursuit before the '70s, was streamlined in the early '80s by the Medellín Cartel, specifically by a John Lennon-obsessed neo-Nazi named Carlos Lehder. Working with the most famous Colombian trafficker, Pablo Escobar, Lehder opened air routes to the Bahamas. He even bought an island, where he held orgies while one plane after another stopped for refueling before unloading cocaine at airports in Florida and Georgia.
By the '90s, Mexican cartels had grown in power and seized control of the trade from the increasingly fragmented Colombians. Around that time, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, a Mexican kingpin nicknamed the "Lord of the Skies," used former passenger jets such as Boeing 727s, capable of outrunning air force patrols, to transport up to ten metric tons of cocaine at a time. He is estimated to have earned $25 billion in his career.
Though the Lord of the Skies died in 1997 from botched plastic surgery, there's been no letup in air traffic. Sinaloa Cartel chief Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán — whom Forbes has repeatedly named one of the world's most powerful people and who is awaiting trial in New York — allegedly had a fleet of planes outstripping the largest Mexican airline, Aeromexico, according to the Mexican newspaper El Universal. More than 500 Sinaloa aircraft have been identified, the paper reported, and those are just the ones that have been caught.
Drug planes today can be nimble single-engine Pipers or giant turbojets. Last year, a cocaine-smuggling Boeing 737, painted all white, was seized in the Dominican Republic along with 800 kilos of cocaine.
Air corridors have shifted dramatically since the '80s. In the never-ending game of whack-a-mole that is the drug war, a lockdown of Colombian airspace beginning in the early '00s led air pirates to decamp to neighboring Venezuela, where they've thrived.
Despite a collapsing economy, near-hyperinflation, and a refugee crisis that rivals Syria's, Venezuela is home to the sixth-largest number of private jets in the world, ahead of China, according to a report published last year in Forbes. And the quantity continues to grow.
South Florida is a prime destination for these planes. In 2013, the second-fastest-growing route for private jets on the planet was Caracas to Miami, according to CNN. Some fraction of these planes is probably being put to nefarious use. The world's cocaine is produced almost entirely in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and the U.S. government has estimated about half of it passes through Venezuela on the way to world markets. Much of it leaves on planes.
First, uncut coke is moved across Colombia's porous border to Venezuela, where it's loaded onto planes at countless hidden airstrips that can be little more than dirt tracks. "Our airspace has been taken over," Luis Lippa, a former governor of Apure, a Venezuelan state near the border with Colombia, told the New York Times in 2012.
Flying planes that are often poorly maintained, the pilots have one of the world's most dangerous jobs. "If they screw up, they're almost always executed," says Bunck, the drug expert. "[Cartels] control the pilots through coercion, through fear, and they pay them really well."
Sometimes carrying tons at a time, drug planes fan across Latin America, especially over Honduras and Mexico, where coke is unloaded and sent into the United States by ship, train, truck, car, or tunnel. (The DEA has estimated that 90 percent of coke comes into the United States through Mexico and Central America.) Other planes head to the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe.
"Venezuela is the source of literally hundreds of flights every year," says Bruce Bagley, a drug-trade expert at University of Miami. "It's very hard to find who's behind all of this, where they're going. They fly low," eluding radar, he says.
Though the Venezuelan government in 2012 passed a law authorizing air force jets to shoot down suspicious planes, no one can be sure which side the government is on. The DEA has accused generals and politicians of allowing drug flights.
Last year, the agency indicted the Venezuelan vice president, Tareck El Aissami, on drug charges and froze his Gulfstream 200 jet, owned on paper by 200G PSA Holdings LLC. The company's address? A suite in Brickell City Tower, a 33-story, reflective skyscraper in Miami.
A former Venezuelan drug kingpin, Walid Makled, convicted in Venezuela of trafficking and money laundering in 2015, has accused Aissami's family of corruption. New Times found that Makled, too, sheltered a jet in Miami that was eventually seized in Venezuela: a Gulfstream III registered to a company that lists an address just off the Palmetto Expressway, where New Times found no sign of the company.
Phone calls to both companies located there last week yielded the same response: "Airplane? What airplane? I don't know what you're talking about."
When planes are linked to the drug trade, sometimes there's a basis in fact, and sometimes there isn't. Take, for instance, four Gulfstream jets that belonged to Jorge Reynoso, the manager-turned-husband of Puerto Rican pop star Noelia. The couple has never been accused of or charged with any wrongdoing, and there's no suggestion of lawbreaking on their part, but their story is a descent into the opaque netherworld of private aviation.
In 2012, the Venezuelan government seized a Gulfstream II from Elite Jet Group, a company Reynoso controlled that listed the address of a UPS store at 65th Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Reynoso, who sells planes, claims he and Noelia were unwittingly swept up in a high-level extortion plot perpetrated by the Venezuelan government.
Reynoso, emphasizing he runs his aviation ventures separate from Noelia, says he initially gave the Gulfstream to her as a gift. The Billboard Award-winning singer — who turns out pulsing dance music, plus a line of lingerie, handbags, and adult toys under the label Noelicious — has a passion for private jets. Her Instagram account, where she calls herself a #gulfstreamgirl, is full of photos of her around luxury jets, including posing on a wing. But Noelia decided remodeling this particular Gulfstream would be too expensive, Reynoso says. So he opted to try to sell it to a guy in Caracas. That's when the trouble began. Reynoso says he and his pop-star wife watched the jet get sucked into Venezuelan state corruption.
After Reynoso delivered the plane to Maiquetia International Airport outside Caracas, the buyer didn't come through with payment, so he told the crew to fly back to Florida. As the pilot was preparing to take off, the control tower ordered the plane to stop — departure had been blocked. Authorities "immediately surrounded and obligated my crew to vacate the plane," says Reynoso, who was not there. Then, he says, "people close to" Brigadier Gen. Francisco Paz Fleitas, who was head of the Venezuelan civil aviation authority, phoned him.
Reynoso says he was told to send the plane to the small city of Punto Fijo, near Aruba, and then he would "get paid in cash in Panama," he tells New Times. "I said no. No fucking way. If you guys dare [to take] that plane... I will call CNN."
The Venezuelan version of this story is very different. According to an article published January 19, 2013, on the Venezuelan news site Noticias 24, the country's government announced Reynoso's plane had been flown to Caracas as the first step in a sale to drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera, a latter-day Pablo Escobar widely known as "El Loco," who had been arrested in September 2012. "Investigations by the [National Anti-Drug Office] found that the airplane was going to be acquired by the criminal drug-trafficking organization that was led by 'El Loco' Barrera," a senior antidrug official told the news site.
Though Noelia called that account "a fictional story" and demanded the plane's return, it was never given back, Reynoso says.
That wasn't his only issue. In 2013, in a previously unreported incident, the DEA seized a Gulfstream II that Reynoso owned through a Nevada company called One Air Title LLC. He says the DEA took the jet in St. Petersburg after a sale had gone bad. A Mexican broker had referred Reynoso to potential buyers who he says were "not the most reputable individuals," a fact Reynoso says he learned "too late." He was not accused of or charged with any crime.
What happened next shows how spectacularly the Justice Department can fail to do its homework. The U.S. passed the jet, likely at public auction, to Aero II Aviation LLC, a Delaware company with an alarming background. Court records from a civil lawsuit show the firm was owned by an ex-con named George W. Blood. And its chief pilot was another ex-con — and self-professed former drug smuggler — Stephen L. Crittenden, according to aviation records reviewed by New Times.
Crittenden and Blood had been charged in a 2002 counterfeiting case. Convicted of peddling $1.5 million in forged cashier's checks, Blood was sentenced to five years in prison, and Crittenden got six. A decade before those convictions, Crittenden told a crazy story: He said the CIA had fronted him $20 million and five cargo planes in the '80s to set up a secret airline in Bangkok and move heroin, cocaine, and guns. On one occasion, he claimed, 40 American women were flown to China and given as presents to Chinese officials. None of his story was ever proven.
Neither that tale nor the counterfeiting rap prevented Crittenden and Blood from receiving the seized jet from the U.S. government.
On March 28, 2014, the jet left Fort Myers for Mexico, where Blood sold it, FAA records show. A year later, on April 13, 2015, the Gulfstream flew to Venezuela, and air force jets forced it to land in Punto Fijo. The crew had entered Venezuelan airspace without presenting a flight plan, "raising suspicions," according to Notifalcón, a Venezuela news site. Tests picked up traces of cocaine in the interior, according to Venezuelan court documents, indicating cocaine had already been shipped.
Blood did not respond to New Times' phone calls and emails seeking comment. Nor did Crittenden, the self-described CIA smuggler, return emails.
That the U.S. government would seize an airplane and then sell it to convicted felons who somehow returned it to the drug trade is "like firemen starting fires," says Paul Gootenberg, a history professor at New York's Stony Brook University who studies the drug trade.
A third Gulfstream II of Reynoso's was seized by the Honduran government on the island of Roatán in March 2013. But an investigation found no cocaine onboard, and though Proceso Digital, a Honduran news service, said the plane had been abandoned, Reynoso contends the whole mysterious ordeal was a misunderstanding. "[It] was detained for not having a landing permit," he says, adding the buyer paid a fine and took control of the Gulfstream. "I have no further obligations on that plane."
Reynoso's run of bad luck continued in early 2014, when another plane he controlled was seized by the Ecuadorian government, which claimed the aircraft had been abandoned. A narcotics prosecutor, Leonidas Lema, told reporters it was tied to drug traffickers in the United States. Reynoso tried to get the plane back but eventually gave up. He claims it was taken as revenge for his refusal to play ball with Venezuelan generals. The plane was "kosher, not a single controversy," he says.
Reynoso portrays the work of selling planes as a dangerous business. He says cartel "assassins" even once broke into his home on Fort Lauderdale Beach. "I have sold over 120 airplanes," he says. "Many of my clients are very respectable businesses from Mexico. [But it's common] to get directly or indirectly involved in situations like these. Cartels are well structured when it comes to using front companies to acquire aircraft. It is a business hazard that you have to learn to navigate."
Reynoso's Gulfstream II isn't the only executive jet seized by the U.S. government and then apparently transferred to an ex-con. In early August 2009, a Learjet with six cream leather seats and mahogany detailing, tail number N21NW, arrived at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport from North Carolina's Wilmington International Airport. Inside were "over 300 kilograms" of cocaine from Venezuela, according to a March 4, 2012 affidavit by Albert Ordonez, an agent of the Department of Homeland Security.
Court records and public auction listings indicate that, sometime before mid-2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized N21NW from One Way Jet. In March 2012, the company's American CEO, Paul Cordoba, was charged in U.S. District Court of Southern Florida with drug trafficking. But he apparently took off, chartering a plane from Palm Beach to Texas, walking across the Mexican border, and then fleeing to Venezuela, where he was arrested. (The U.S. said in 2013 his extradition was "unlikely." And the company somehow still exported a Beechcraft D55 propeller plane to Venezuela in 2015, FAA records show.)
In September 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department sold the seized Learjet at auction for a little over $100,000. FAA records show the plane then passing directly from One Way Jet to a Delaware company, Lincoln Investment Holdings Inc., which owned at least six other executive jets. Who owned that company was not immediately apparent, because Delaware records allow substantial anonymity. But the man behind the curtain was allegedly a convicted narco.
In a later federal case to seize one of Lincoln's planes, filed January 7, 2014, in Tyler, Texas, prosecutors alleged that Lincoln, as well as another aviation firm, Starwood Management, was secretly controlled by a Mexican national named Christian Esquino, who had been convicted of cocaine smuggling in Florida in the '90s. The feds brought the complaint because foreign nationals are generally not allowed to own U.S. planes.
In 2012, Esquino had become infamous when an aging Starwood jet slammed into a mountain in Mexico, killing the Mexican-American superstar singer Jenni Rivera. Esquino's trafficking past became national news, and though he denied wrongdoing in Rivera's death, he told the Associated Press that the DEA had kept an eye on him over the years. (Esquino could not be reached for comment. In 2016, a judge entered a $70 million judgment against Starwood that sided with the relatives of the Rivera staffers who were killed in the crash.)
So how did Lincoln Investment Holdings, allegedly controlled by a convicted drug trafficker, obtain the Learjet from the feds without raising red flags? It's unclear. Also unclear is the fate of the plane. On FlightAware, a website that monitors planes, the Learjet was last logged January 3, 2014, on a flight to Taylorville, a small town in Illinois. It had taken off from McAllen, Texas, on the border with Mexico.
Eagle Support Corporation used to have a hangar at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, but today the company occupies a suite in a beige one-story office park fringed by palm trees in the flight path near Miami International Airport. Inside, Carlos Vasquez, spokesperson for the company, wearing a suit and a white polo with the Eagle insignia, shows a reporter around the clean, quiet office, which has a few crucifixes on the walls. It's a world away from the chaos in Venezuela, where a total of three planes that Eagle sold wound up linked to drug traffickers, and another owned by Eagle was seized by the country's government in what the company says was simply theft. "It was just confiscated for no reason," Vasquez says. "What the government is doing in Venezuela is taking a lot of properties from the people. They have taken factories and farms and aircraft."
Vasquez, who says he began working at the company a couple of years ago, leads a reporter to a conference room, where he gives a slide presentation of the company's array of government certifications, authorizing Eagle to supply parts to the air forces of Chile, Peru, and Colombia. "We are vigilant," he says. "We want to do the right thing."
Next comes the office of CEO Hector Alfonso Schneider, who is sitting in an open-collar shirt behind his desk. On his wall is a framed photo of the first plane he sold as an entrepreneur freshly arrived in the United States from Colombia in the early '00s. It's a Beechcraft propeller plane that was sold to a Colombian oil company for $160,000, netting a tidy profit.
Planes are in the family, Schneider says: His father worked in Colombia as a sales representative for Cessna. And Schneider flew for Colombian air taxi services, he says. Since that first sale, Eagle has exported about 40 planes to Latin America, almost all to Venezuela or Colombia. Eagle sells only a few planes per year these days, he says, typically clearing a 5 to 10 percent commission on a sale. The aircraft have been everything from propeller planes to Cessna Citation jets. Once the company even sold a Boeing 737 to Albatros Airlines, a Venezuelan passenger carrier.
Consider, though, the Beechcraft King Air 300 propeller airplane that Eagle sold to an obscure Venezuelan company called Inversiones Fer-Nel C.A. in 2008. Though Schneider says he remembers it as a routine sale, what eventually happened to the plane is made clear in press accounts.
One night in November 2010, it touched down on an empty two-lane road in Belize. The Southern Highway had long doubled as a runway for drug planes traveling through Central America. Police officers allegedly moonlighting as drug traffickers were waiting on the ground and proceeded to unload 2.6 metric tons of cocaine, valued at roughly $70 million, just shy of Nicki Minaj's net worth.
Police on the right side of the law quickly found the abandoned plane and caught the drug-dealing cops trying to escape in a white getaway van. With them was a customs official, as well a chauffeur for Belize's governor-general. Police later recovered the cocaine in what at the time was reported by a local TV station to be the largest interdiction in Belizean history.
But the incident on the highway happened two years after Eagle sold the plane into Venezuela. "It's easy for planes to be resold once they get to another country," Eagle's Vasquez says. And Venezuela has virtually no public records on aviation sales. New Times could find little information about Inversiones Fer-Nel beyond an address in Caracas.
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In 2011, the DEA seized a Beechcraft propeller plane from Eagle that the agency later claimed was being sold to an alleged periodic Eagle customer: Barrera, "El Loco." According to agency court filings made in 2016, "from time to time" the cartel controlled by Barrera had sourced planes from Eagle.
It's "totally false" that Eagle sold planes to Barrera, Schneider says, explaining that a lawyer for Barrera contacted the Eagle CEO to say the DEA was mistaken. But the filings cite confidential informants in describing how Barrera's cartel wired cocaine proceeds from New York to buy the seized plane.
The DEA filings accuse Eagle of no wrongdoing, and they don't imply the company knew it was selling planes to a cartel. But Schneider says the seizure, along with a New Times article about it in 2016, has scared off some banks and customers, casting a pall over a company he built from scratch.
"We are victims," Vasquez says.