Narcoplanes: A Few Loose Ends

Fire sales, energy drink companies, the usual

In case you missed it, last week, Giancarlo Fiorella and I published an article in Bellingcat about the 21 aircraft destroyed by the Venezuelan government over the past year and a half. More often than not, these aircraft were registered in the US by trusts, LLCs, or other hazy corporate structures.

However, as with any article, a great deal had to be left on the cutting room floor. Today, I hope to tie up a few loose ends and provide a bit more texture and nuance to the points raised in the article. I also hope to get across what an incredibly bizarre series of circumstances and actors bring these aircraft together over the skies of western Venezuela.

Where did ya come from? Where did ya go?

In the Bellingcat article, we mention how before becoming involved in drug trafficking, many of these aircraft were advertised and bought on sites that specialize in private jet sales. However, the new owners of these aircraft also occasionally purchased the aircraft in more…let’s say….creative ways.

One aircraft downed in Venezuela, N54TS, was owned by a Wyoming-based company named TWA International, Inc., before being exported to Mexico on March 5, 2020. Why did they export it? It could have something to do with the fact that they had been sued for over $300,000 for allegedly fraudulently renting an aircraft to a client the prior January. Or because they owed delinquent taxes.

Another aircraft, N515BA, had been owned by Middle Tennessee State University, home of the Murfreesboro Blue Raiders, until 2017. It was bought in a fire sale on govdeals.com for $366,500 by a Carlos Vazquez in Laredo, TX.

He owned it for a year or two before selling it on aircraft.com to an anonymous entity represented by Aircraft Guaranty Corp Trustee in 2020.

Once AGCT got their hands on it, it followed the same pattern as the aircraft we detailed in the Bellingcat piece. The trust filed a temporary airworthiness certificate for the aircraft on July 1, it made a final flight to Queretaro, Mexico on July 19, and it slipped the surly bonds of earth on July 31 (by being obliterated on a runway in Venezuela’s Zulia state).

Others took to even more home brewed methods to sell their aircraft. One pilot, evidently in a hurry to sell his plane, published a series of posts in the Facebook Group “AERO VENTAS PIPER y CESSNA” over the course of July 2020.

His first post, on July 4, was accompanied by 27 photographs of the aircraft N305LR and a list price of $740,000.

On July 10, he posted a slew of later-deleted updates as well as one advertising a Grumman Gulfstream III with an “N-number” (i.e. a US registration) located in the US - the same aircraft as in his first post. Bafflingly, this one was listed for a higher price, $850,000.

Finally, on July 18, he dropped the price to $650,000 in a comment in response to a man looking to buy a “G2B” - a Gulfstream II. He also updated the comment thread on July 28, indicating the aircraft likely hadn’t been sold by then.

Whether our hero successfully sold the aircraft to this man is unclear. We do know that by August 19, N305LR was newly registered with the FAA by a US-based trust called Aircraft Holding Solutions LLC Trustee. We also know that by October 4, it was a smoking wreck on an illegal airfield in Venezuela, near the Colombian border.

N17JE

As weird as all this was, nothing compares to the truly bizarre, convoluted story of N17JE. N17JE also flipped everything we thought or assumed about narcoplanes on its head.

For starters, the aircraft began its life owned by an LLC, rather than ended its life owned by one, as most of the other aircraft we identified did. The first records available for the aircraft show it was owned by N17JE LLC between 1998 and 2006, at which point it began bouncing around different holding companies.

Things settled a bit in 2014, when it was sold to an exporter in Miami called LCD Systems, Inc.

It remained with LCD Systems for a few years until it was sold to an entity in Costa Rica on December 12, 2017. Unfortunately, Costa Rica doesn’t maintain a public aircraft registry, so we can’t see any documents associated with the plane’s legal presence in Costa Rica.

That “export” was in name only, as the aircraft had apparently been abandoned on the tarmac at Costa Rica’s Daniel Oduber Quirós International airport since late 2014. Why, you may ask? Apparently for undergoing illegal modifications. Nonetheless, social media and satellite images show it parked in virtually the same place between November 2014 and February 2017.

The last time it was seen outside the Costa Rican airport (or the swamp in Venezuela where it ended up) was in Panama City on November 6, 2014. Soon after, on November 30, it was spotted on a corner of the tarmac in Costa Rica for the first time.

The next month, it appeared in a satellite image and on JetPhotos (N17JE is on the right), respectively, on December 13 and December 17, 2014.

It popped up again on JetPhotos on November 2, 2015 and in a pair of satellite images on February 13 and 19, 2017.

By the time the weather was good enough for another clear satellite image of the airport, on January 4, 2018, the plane is gone. N17JE disappeared for the next two and a half years - no social media posts, no flight spotter posts, no flight tracking information, no nothing.

This is where things get really weird. Despite the lack of information available about the aircraft in that period, it had a new owner: Solo Energy Drinks - a purveyor of fine energy drinks based in Miami, Florida that posts things like this on Facebook:

N17JE’s aircraft registration information showing Solo Energy Drink Ltd as the plane’s owner.

After being gone for almost two years N17JE reappeared (in a fashion) in a post by the Dominican Republic’s civil aviation authority announcing that the plane….disappeared.

It disappeared on a flight from Puerto Plata to Barahona on the afternoon of August 1, according to Dominican authorities.

Rescuers searched for a crash site over the next few days in the mountainous Diego de Ocampo region in the north of the country but came up empty handed. Despite their lack of success, the searchers were right about one thing: the plane had crashed. But they were very wrong about another: the country in which the plane crashed. Their search area was off by about 700 miles, as N17JE had actually crashed on an alleged narcotrafficking mission in a swamp near western Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo on August 1.

Venezuelan authorities also announced that they arrested three people (ostensibly the three on top of the aircraft) following the crash, which is very much out of the norm for narcoplanes. What happened to them, or the aircraft for that matter, is unclear.

Wrapping up

While the overarching pattern of the suspected drug trafficking aircraft was covered in the Bellingcat piece, there were certainly a number of exceptions to those rules.

LLCs or trusts usually registered the aircraft, but not always. The aircraft were usually sold on online private jet brokerages, but not always. The aircraft were usually high end Gulfstream or Bombardier airframes, but not always. The pilots of these planes were usually not arrested, but not always. The list goes on.

Regardless, it remains clear that US-registered aircraft are bought, sold, and owned by clients (or clients of clients) that the Venezuelan government accuses of drug trafficking. Until this cycle is broken, we can anticipate more shoot downs, seizures, and arrests.

Now, if you’ve made it this far, please enjoy my collage of Venezuelan soldiers pointing at things.