Mysterious Jet Crash Is Rare Portal Into the “Dark Alliances” of the Drug War
Paper Trail for Cocaine-Filled Plane that Crashed in Yucatán Suggests Link to U.S. Law Enforcement Corruption in Colombia
By Bill Conroy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
November 17, 2007
The Gulfstream II aircraft that crashed on the Yucatan Peninsula outside of Cancun in late September while laden with some four tons of cocaine has been the subject of considerable media and blogger attention in recent weeks.
The Gulfstream II with tail number N987SA, one month before it crashed in the Yucatán peninsula.
Some reports have alleged the errant plane was previously used between 2003 and 2005 by the CIA for several flights to the infamous U.S. “terrorist” prison camp in Guantamano Bay. The fact that the ownership of the aircraft apparently switched hands twice within weeks of the crash, helping to obscure its ownership, has only further fueled media and Internet speculation that the jet’s illegal payload was being transported as part of some larger U.S. government black operation.
All that might be true — or not.
But Narco News has uncovered at least one fact that is certain to deepen the mystery surrounding the crash of the jet whose tail number, N987SA, is now affixed in the lexicon of CIA folklore. That fact revolves around the name Greg Smith, who was identified in a McClatchy Washington Bureau report on the Gulfstream II’s crash as follows:
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.
But before we introduce you to the mysterious Mr. Smith, it is important in all of this to remember that a proposition is not automatically a corollary of a seemingly related fact.
Too many conspiracy theories rest on a proof built on the six-degrees-of-separation premise — that any person on the Earth can be connected to anyone else through a chain of no more than five people. That might be true, and can make for an interesting trail to follow, but it doesn’t prove the first person in the chain even knew the last person — let alone that all six individuals acted in a conspiracy.
As the late, great authentic journalism heavyweight Gary Webb, who did meticulously investigate and link CIA activities to illicit drug running, once said:
“I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I believe in conspiracies.”
With that understanding in mind, it is important to review the timeline of the Gulfstream II’s demise in the Yucatan peninsula— as reported by other media.
The plane took off from Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport headed for Toluca, outside Mexico City, on Sept. 18. It crashed near Cancun, Mexico, on Sept. 24 after departing from Rio Negro, Colombia.
Mexican publication Por Esto!, whose work on the story has been exhaustive, with some 30 stories to date, and based on solid journalism, reported that the jet was headed to an airport in Cancun, but arrived shortly after a work-shift change at the airport. The security people on the new work shift did not authorize the Gulfstream II to land, so it flew to an airport in the Yucatán capital of Merida, which also would not authorize a landing.
The jet remained stranded in the air until it ran out of fuel and was forced to make an emergency landing in the hills by the nearby town of Tixkokob, Por Esto! reported.
Mexican authorities apprehended one of the pilots onboard the Gulfstream II a couple days later, about three miles from the crash site. Four days later, they apprehended a man alleged to be the copilot, though Por Esto! has questioned why none of the helicopters or other high-tech search equipment available were mobilized to find the two more quickly. Por Esto! also claimed that the amount of cocaine at the crash site appeared to be much more than the 3.7 metric tons authorities reported.
Also of importance to this story is the ownership trail of the jet itself. McClatchy reported that a Florida-based company called Donna Blue Aircraft, which is supposedly owned by two Brazilian men, acquired the Gulfstream II from a company connected to New York real estate developer William Achenbaum.
That deal was allegedly cut on August 30. Donna Blue then flipped the jet to a new owner, for a supposed payment of about $2 million, on September16.
That’s where the enigmatic Greg Smith comes into the picture, as one of the supposed co-signers on the bill of sale drafted by Donna Blue for the Gulfstream II. Media reports to date have followed the trail of his supposed partner in the deal, Clyde O’Connor, and even delved into the background of Achenbaum, but the trail on Smith seems to be cold.
Where could he be — and who is he anyway? Smith is not exactly a unique name, even in the insular world of the private-jet industry.
Well, it turns out that Narco News has run across the trail of at least one Greg Smith who has plenty of experience flying between southern Florida and Latin America — for the U.S. government.
Baruch Vega is a colorful Colombian who has worked as an asset for the FBI, DEA and CIA, among other agencies, over the years.
Vega was very involved with a series of U.S. law enforcement operations carried out by the DEA and FBI between 1997 and 2000. Those operations, Vega claims, involved brokering deals with Colombian narco-traffickers by offering them the bait of U.S.-government sanctioned plea deals in return for their surrender or cooperation.
The following is from a lawsuit filed recently in federal court by Vega, in which he alleges the government failed to pay him for his high-risk services, to the tune of some $28.5 million:
Once Mr. Vega introduced … American lawyers to the Colombian targets [the narco-traffickers], the lawyers would then get retained and then take over as legal representatives for the Colombian targets and further deal with a group of United States law enforcement agents and prosecutors, hand-picked to work out deals for the Colombian targets. A particular United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida became the coordinator of this “recruiting effort.”
So Vega is in a position to know the lay of the land in the Colombian narco-trafficking scene — which is the source of the four tons of cocaine found on the crashed Gulfstream II jet. After all, coca plants don’t grow well in Mexico.
According to Vega, between late 1997 and 2000, he traveled between South Florida and South America via a private jet for a total of some 25 to 30 “recruiting” trips— some with FBI agents on board, some with DEA agents on board, and some transporting Colombian narco-traffickers who were being brought back to the United States to negotiate deals.
Vega claims that the main pilot for all of those flights was none other than an individual named Greg Smith.
Here’s how Vega described the situation to Narco News in a recent interview.
Well originally… I met Greg Smith… we needed a pilot, a very trustful pilot, someone we could trust to bring in the [Colombian] drug traffickers to surrender. Then the members of the FBI recommended to get in contact with this guy [Smith] because he was very close to them. Ever since we flew only with him.
Everything was with him. … I never asked anything [about Smith’s background]. But he [Smith] brought a couple of pilots because we always have two pilots in the plane. He occasionally brought pilots from the US Customs.
I tell you one thing. We flew with Greg Smith easily 25 to 30 times. All [the] operations [were] between the end of 1997 to 2000.
When Vega was asked if federal agents were on board the jet during those trips, he responded:
Vega adds that the FBI and DEA were each running their own separate operations at the time, so the FBI also was involved in some of the confidential source recruiting trips to South America as well, and he says the Bureau “even paid for the [leased] plane a few times.”
A judge’s ruling in another legal case that is related to Vega’s pending lawsuit, in fact, backs up his claims. It describes the CIA’s involvement in one flight in 1999 that departed from Panama for Florida that involved Vega, federal agents and an indicted, fugitive Colombian narco-trafficker:
Indeed, the appellant [a DEA supervisor] used the CIA to bring Mr. Cristancho to the chartered aircraft surreptitiously, without going through Panamanian airport security or customs. The appellant simply made no attempt to conceal the use of the chartered aircraft. And, an Assistant U.S. Attorney and various DEA agents from Group 9 were at the Fort Lauderdale airport to greet the plane.
And those same legal pleadings mention the name of the company from which Vega chartered the aircraft: Aero Group Jets.
On or about November 17, 1999, the appellant [a DEA supervisor] received an invoice from Aero Group Jets in the amount of $23,200 for the rental of the aircraft used to transport Mr. Cristancho.
Vega also confirmed that Smith’s company was called Aero Group Jets.
A check of the public records available through Florida’s Department of State lists the registered agent/officer of that now inactive company as Gregory D. Smith.
So it would seem that the real question now is whether the Greg Smith who allegedly signed the paperwork in the purchase of the crashed Gulfstream II jet, as reported by McClatchy, is the same Greg Smith who was recommended by the FBI, according to Vega, to pilot more than two dozen flights to Latin America between 1997 and 2000 as part of U.S.-sanctioned law enforcement operations.
One reporter known for his spook-related journalism claims to have already interviewed the right Mr. Smith, but, by his own admission, it was through a third party — which leaves open the possibility of all sorts of shenanigans, particularly if we are dealing with real CIA spooks.
Another reporter with a Florida weekly also claims to have interviewed the real Mr. Smith. However, as it turns out, when Narco News contacted that individual, he stressed that the reporter had gotten the wrong man.
“I was falsely written up … and they named my company,” says Greg Smith, who is with a company called Global Jet Solutions of Pembroke Pines, Fla. “There’s probably three or four Greg Smiths in aviation in South Florida. But it’s not my name on the bill of sale [for the Gulfstream II jet that crashed in Mexico on September 24].”
This Smith, who says his middle initial is “J,” adds that he has hired an attorney to explore legal action against the publication that he alleges wrongly identified him and his company.
This is the 1998 signature of Gregory D. Smith of Aero Group Jets. Baruch Vega claims a Greg Smith of Aero Group Jets was the pilot for a jet that flew as many as 30 flights between Florida and South America with DEA or FBI agents on board, and in some cases drug traffickers — who were being transported to the United States to broker deals with the U.S. government.
Narco News did obtain a copy of a 2007 document that contains the signature belonging to the Greg Smith of Global Jet Solutions. That signature does appear to be different than the signature of the Greg Smith contained on an annual report filed with the state of Florida in 1998 by Aero Group Jets — the firm Vega claims he leased a jet from during his many trips to South America between 1997 and 2000.
So it appears, at least for now, a cloud of mystery still conceals the whereabouts of the right Greg Smith — whom McClatchy reporters contend was a co-signer on the bill of sale for the ill-fated Gulfstream II Jet.
Now, before anyone jumps to conclusions, it is important to point out that every crashed plane has its own unique story — as does every drug deal gone bad. And most don’t all involve grand CIA conspiracies directly linked to the White House — though as Gary Webbs’ investigative reporting on the CIA/Contra/Crack connection showed, those “Dark Alliances” do surface from time to time.
But for the sake of argument, let’s explore some more mundane theories.
For example, the Gulfstream II jet’s crash landing in the Yucatan might simply be a drug-smuggling run gone bad, with no mystery beyond that reality.
Or it is possible that the jet that crashed outside of Cancun was under surveillance as part of a government operation known as a controlled delivery — in which government agents allow a load of drugs to make its way to the destination (under close scrutiny) with the goal of arresting those who take delivery of the narcotics in the United States. If that’s the case, the fact that the jet crashed after getting waived off of two airports tells us only that something went wrong, that the operation was not “greased” properly, in law enforcement lingo.
As for Vega, and several former federal law enforcement sources interviewed by Narco News, both the notion that the Gulfstream II was part of a U.S. government-sanctioned controlled delivery operation, or that it was part of some kind of CIA black op, are both viewed as being on the low side of probability.
However, at least one law enforcement source with experience working in Latin America did say:
Vega weighed in on the questions as follows:
… I believe more it could be a run [by narco-traffickers] because a controlled delivery is very easy. A controlled delivery would make the plane land … remember how close the Keys are to the Yucatan Peninsula or any airport in Miami. And if it’s a controlled delivery by your government, that plane could land anywhere basically. Or at least land in one place until they call the agents and come and clear the whole thing. That’s why I could say more it looks like a run for one of the traffickers.
… Again, that’s what I say [in terms of the allegation that it was a CIA black operation], that’s what doesn’t make sense because let’s assume the Agency is running that thing, they could land in Guantanamo, they could land anywhere in the Keys or in Florida and wait an hour or two until someone calls from somewhere, and then don’t worry. That’s it.
But there also are other possible explanations as to the Gulfstream’s possible connections to U.S. intelligence or law enforcement that fall more squarely into the chaos of human vice —such as greed and official corruption.
With that in mind, it might be worth reviewing some past cases where human virtue seems to have gotten twisted up a bit in pursuit of the drug war.
At the top of the list is the case of the Bogota Connection, which was exposed by a Justice Department memo drafted in 2004.
Vega was very involved with some of the U.S. law enforcement operations referenced in the memo. Those particular operations played out between 1997 and 2000 and sought to snare narco-traffickers with Colombia’s infamous North Valley Cartel. Remember, Vega claims an individual named Greg Smith, during that same time period, was retained as a pilot to fly numerous missions — for both the DEA and FBI — that were, in essence, confidential-source recruiting trips.
In the course of that work, Vega alleges, corrupt U.S. agents in Colombia seriously compromised his role as a government asset and that a number of his informants within Colombia’s narco-trafficking underworld were assassinated as a result.
Justice Department attorney Thomas M. Kent wrote the memo in late 2004 in an effort to draw attention to alleged serious corruption within the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. In the memo, Kent alleges that DEA agents in Bogotá are on drug traffickers’ payrolls, complicit in the murders of informants who knew too much, and, most startlingly, directly involved in helping Colombia’s infamous rightwing paramilitary death squads to launder drug money.
The first of the major allegations in Kent’s memo centers on a DEA undercover operation launched in Colombia in 1997 called Cali-Man, which made use of Vega as an asset. The operation was overseen by David Tinsley, a DEA group supervisor in Miami.
As part of Cali-Man, Tinsley and the agents working under him uncovered evidence that DEA agents in Bogotá appeared to be assisting narco-traffickers in Colombia. In one case, Tinsley’s group, as part of a sting, obtained a classified document from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota via a narco-trafficker turned informant.
After Narco News exposed the Kent memo in a story published on Jan. 9, 2006, DEA reacted by describing the corruption allegations in that memo as “extremely serious.”
However, some nine days later, after Semana, a popular weekly magazine in Colombia, published a story about the Kent memo, DEA issued another public statement describing the corruption allegations as “unfounded.”
The U.S. mainstream media has been silent about the Kent memo, and the Bogotá Connection, since that time.
It is not to be ignored, in the case of the Gulfstream II jet crash in Mexico, that the flight allegedly left from Rio Negro, Colombia, just outside Medellín, where it managed to avoid that nation’s customs and law enforcement scrutiny while loaded up with at least 132 bags of cocaine that tipped the scales at four tons.
In any event, Vega says his work in Colombia for the DEA and FBI did produce results — despite the alleged treachery on the part of U.S. agents in Bogotá and elsewhere
(For more on Vega’s lawsuit, go to this link.)
But the allegations of U.S. law enforcement corruption that have surfaced in the Bogota Connection are not new in the history of the drug war, for those who care to follow that trail.
For example, in the early 1990s, according to court pleadings in a criminal case filed in New York, DEA agents transported a large quantity of heroin from Pakistan to New York City, via commercial airlines, allegedly for the purpose of setting up undercover stings.
However, the defendant in the litigation, Gaetano DiGirolamo, who is now serving a life prison sentence, claims he is not guilty of the charges brought against him in 1991; in fact, he claims that DEA agents framed him, seeking to use his case as a cover for their own illegal drug-smuggling activities.
Among the claims raised in a post-conviction petition filed by DiGirolamo was that he was convicted “based upon perjury of three DEA agents.”
The petition goes on to raise major doubts about the veracity of the DEA agents’ purported sting against DiGirolamo — such as the fact that the alleged heroin brought in from Pakistan was never tested to assure it was the same heroin used in the sting, nor was the heroin ever produced at trial.
In addition, despite claims by the DEA agents involved in transporting the heroin that their operation had been sanctioned by DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as the French and Pakistani governments, DiGirolamo’s attorney, law professor Steven B. Duke, says those approvals were never produced.
“Where are they?” Duke asks in a court filing. “Where are the applications for such approvals? Where is the evidence that any of these approvals were sought, much less obtained?”
The DEA agents, of course, contend Duke’s allegations are baseless.
Still, it is clear that federal agents did transport 20 kilos of heroin from Pakistan to New York via commercial airlines — a fact to keep in mind the next time you are flying the friendly skies.
The U.S. Customs Service sent Duke a letter on May 2, 2000, in reply to his queries about the incident. The response was prepared by Bonnie Tischler, then assistant commissioner for Customs’ Office of Investigations. (Customs is now part of the Department of Homeland Security.)
From Tischler’s letter to Duke:
Dear Mr. Duke,
Thank you for your March 3, 2000, letter regarding the importation of narcotics into the United States by law enforcement officers.
… The specific incident you cite involved the international controlled delivery of 20 kilograms of heroin at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport on Dec. 4, 1990. Our records indicate that while our agency provided assistance in facilitating that delivery through JFK, the entire operation was initiated and coordinated solely by the DEA. Therefore, I would refer any further questions you my have regarding this matter to DEA Headquarters, 600 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, Virginia 22202.
I appreciate your interest in the Customs Service. If we may be of any further assistance, please contact me …
In yet another case in the late 1990s involving the U.S. Customs Service, federal agents in South Texas were accused of letting an informant — a drug-running pilot — bring tons of cocaine into the country unchecked as part of an effort to snare an alleged drug kingpin.
Customs officials denied that Matthews was allowed to smuggle drugs into the country. However, Mark Conrad, who at the time headed U.S. Customs Internal Affairs in Houston, told Primetime a different story:
We got in bed with Rodney Matthews and the importation of a humongous amount of narcotics coming into the United States. … The reason is there’s a great deal of pressure on agents in the field to make cases, to make the big one. And the bigger, the better. … We hide things. We cover them up. We don’t — we’re not honest at times within our own organization, and we’re clearly not honest at times with the media. … It would never be officially condoned. You’ll never find any policy that approves of it, but it happens routinely in virtually every situation where you’re dealing with informants.
Welcome to the drug war. Will the real Mr. Smith please stand up?