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ICE sold drug smugglers doomed jet

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Published:   |   Updated: January 15, 2014 at 07:24 AM

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A Tampa-based Immigrations and Customs Enforcement undercover operation sold a Gulfstream II turbojet — which crashed in Mexico seven years ago with nearly four tons of cocaine onboard — to suspected drug smugglers in Clearwater shortly before the mishap. That’s according to federal documents in an ongoing drug case involving some of the people in the 2007 aircraft sale.

That jet took off from the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport — where it was sold — on Sept. 16, 2007. Eight days later, it crashed in the Yucatan Peninsula with 3.7 tons of cocaine onboard.

The sale of that jet to the ICE undercover operation known as Mayan Jaguar was brokered by a former race car driver named Don Whittington, now the owner of a Fort Lauderdale charter jet company called World Jet Inc. In 1987, Whittington pleaded guilty to federal tax charges. He is currently being investigated for possibly using a Colorado hot springs resort, registered to the same address as World Jet, to launder the proceeds of aircraft used for drug smuggling — including the Gulfstream, according to a search warrant affidavit for Whittington’s emails.

The affidavit, now sealed, was obtained by the Durango Herald last fall. It was left unsealed accidently and sealed after the paper obtained it to protect sources and tactics, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver.

Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for ICE in Tampa, confirmed the existence of Mayan Jaguar as a drug interdiction effort in the mid-2000s but had no details about the operation.

Whittington brokered the sale of the Gulfstream from SA Holdings LLC to a Coconut Creek-based company called Donna Blue Aircraft, which turned out to be an ICE front company, according to the search warrant affidavit. Donna Blue Aircraft then sold the jet to two pilots who “have long been targets of DEA investigations for the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Central America and Mexico,” according to the affidavit. One of those pilots, Gregory Dean Smith, “currently works as a contract pilot for Don Whittington and World Jet, Inc.,” according to the affidavit.

World Jet’s office was raided in November, according to the DEA, after a yearlong investigation “revealed that Don Whittington sold and leased multiple jet aircraft to purchasing agents of Venezuelan, Colombian, African and Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations,” the affidavit states.

The proceeds from those sales were invested in a Western Colorado spa, investigators say in the search warrant affidavit.

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The sale of the Gulfstream, another jet at St. Pete-Clearwater and other planes from the area have long been the subject of scrutiny by international investigators and government officials.

On April 5, 2006, a DC-9 left the airport, bound for Venezuela. Days later, it was seized in Mexico, where the Mexican army found 5.5 tons of cocaine.

Mexican authorities who issued an arrest warrant for a top financier of the Sinaloa drug cartel uncovered the connection between the cartel and the purchase of two jets, according to Mexican authorities.

The investigations reached the attention of high-level officials in the U.S. and Mexican governments concerned with the nexus between smuggling and terror groups, according to a State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks.

“In the area of money laundering, the USG (U.S. government) developed strong working relationships with the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and its companion unit in the Mexican Treasury (Hacienda) in combating money laundering, terrorist financing, and narcotics trafficking,” according to the cable, from the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela to the State Department. “In one case in late 2007, Mexican police worked with U.S. authorities to identify and arrest the alleged finance head for the Sinaloa drug cartel, targeting a ring that bought airplanes with laundered money to smuggle drugs.”

Another plane sold from St. Petersburg — a Cessna Conquest II — was part of an FBI investigation into international money laundering and drug smuggling, according to an FBI affidavit. The Cessna was sold as part of “a complex international money laundering scheme” to purchase airplanes for drug smuggling, according to an affidavit by FBI agent Michael Hoenigman. It was purchased from St. Petersburg-based Skyway Aircraft, FBI and FAA records state. It was to be used in transporting cocaine from Venezuela to Africa, according to the affidavit. That investigation was separate from any DEA investigations, the DEA has said.

Attorney Hunter Chamberlain, representing Larry Peters, who sold the Cessna, said Peters “doesn’t know anything” about the airplane being used by drug smugglers, Chamberlin said in a 2008 Tribune interview. “This is a guy who has a very small company. Whatever happens to these airplanes after Mr. Peters sells them, they enter the stream of commerce and that’s the last Larry Peters will see of the airplane.”

In an interview, Peters said he sold another plane that was seized by Guatemalan authorities after being used for smuggling.

Peters also has connections to the man whose company sold the plane that later crashed in Mexico. Through Atlantic Alcohol, a St. Petersburg-based company that tried to import ethanol from Brazil, Peters was a business partner of Joao Malago, who sold the Gulfstream II, according to Malago in a previous interview with the Tribune.

Both Malago and Peters have denied any connection to drug smugglers, and while Malago has been contacted by law enforcement, Peters was not.

In a 2007 Tribune interview, Malago, a Brazilian businessman who purchased the Gulfstream II in August 2007 for his Donna Blue Aircraft company, said he sold the 32-year-old twin-engine jet to a Fort Lauderdale-based pilot named Clyde O’Connor on Sept. 16. He emailed the Tribune an Aircraft Acceptance form he said contains O’Connor’s signature and that of a second man, Gregory Smith.

Malago, who bought the plane with partner Eduardo Dias Guimaraes, said he chose St. Pete-Clearwater “because I have a close friend who has a hangar, so the plane was just waiting for delivery.”

In telephone and email interviews from Brazil, Malago in 2007 said he sold the jet to O’Connor for $2 million. O’Connor and Smith, along with a pilot hired by Malago, flew the plane to Fort Lauderdale. Malago said O’Connor was going to use the plane to fly charters in Mexico.

O’Connor, Smith and Whittington did not return phone calls. Malago could not be reached for comment for this story.

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Mayan Jaguar was likely a “win” for the government, said Robert Mazur, who spent five years undercover infiltrating the criminal hierarchy of Colombia’s drug cartels. His book, “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside The Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel,” and the movie it inspired chronicle how drug money is laundered.

“If the name of game is to be able to take $2 million in cash out of the bad guys, give them a plane and let them use it so whatever they try to bring back into the country is seized, that is good,” said Mazur, president of Chase & Associates Inc., a Tampa-based forensic investigative services company, speaking in general terms because he has no direct knowledge of Mayan Jaguar. “Anytime you do anything to facilitate crime, whether selling planes, or laundering money for them, it really needs to be a strategically thought-out plan so that your collection of evidence far outweighs the facilitation of criminal activity.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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