Trail of Government Intrigue Leads Back to Cocaine Jet That Crashed in Mexico’s Yucatan
by Bill Conroy
A high-level player with one of the most notorious narco-trafficking organizations in Mexico, the Sinaloa “cartel,” claims that he has been working with the U.S. government for years, according to pleadings filed recently in federal court in Chicago.
That player, Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia — one of the purported top leaders of the Sinaloa drug-trafficking organization. Zambada Niebla was arrested in Mexico in March 2009 and last February extradited to the United States to stand trial on narco-trafficking-related charges.
The indictment pending against Zambada Niebla claims he served as the “logistical coordinator” for the “cartel,” helping to oversee an operation that imported into the U.S. “multi-ton quantities of cocaine … using various means, including but not limited to, Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, private aircraft … buses, rail cars, tractor trailers, and automobiles.”
The revelation that Zambada Niebla claims to have been a U.S. government asset, working with its sanction, is a shocking development in the so-called drug war and has gone largely un-reported by the U.S. media. The claim, if true, adds credence to theories long in play that the Mexican and U.S. governments are essentially showing favor toward the Sinaloa drug organization and its leadership, including El Mayo and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Lorea, as part of a broader strategy to weaken and ultimately eliminate rival narco organizations.
U.S. and Mexican government officials, of course, have consistently denied that any such arrangement is in place.
Zambada Niebla’s allegation of U.S. government complicity in his narco-trafficking activities is laid out in a two-page court pleading filed in late March with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. The pleading asserts that Zambada Niebla was working with “public authority” “on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”); and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”); and the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”).
“Public authority for the defendant’s [Zambada Niebla’s] acts began from at least on or about January 1, 2004 and continued to and included on or about March 19, 2009,” the court pleading alleges.
In addition to the narco-trafficking charges pending against him in Chicago, Zambada Niebla also stands accused of serving as an enforcer for the Sinaloa organization.
“Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla sought to obtain weapons from the United States … and discussed the use of violence in ‘the Smoke,’ a coded term for Mexico City, Mexico, an area of Mexico in which narcotics trafficking was controlled by the Beltran-Leyva Cartel, so that public and governmental blame for such an act of violence would fall on Arturo Beltran-Leyva and the Beltran Leyva Cartel, and not the … Sinaloa Cartel,” U.S. government court pleadings in Zambada Niebla’s case state.
Arturo Beltran-Leyva was killed in late 2009 by elite Mexican Navy forces, assisted by the U.S. government, in a bloody shootout near Cuernavaca, in the Mexican state of Morelos.
Coincidentally, in late March of this year, seven young men, including the 20-year-old son of Mexican poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, were murdered in the state of Morelos in a senseless and vicious attack by suspected narco-thugs. The murders of these innocent young men, amplified by the anguish of a beloved public figure and father of one of the victims, has sparked a rapidly expanding nonviolent, civil-resistance movement in Mexico that, as one of its major goals, seeks to put an end to the tragic drug-war carnage enabled by the failed bellicose policies of Mexican President Felipe Calderon — policies that have cost the lives of some 40,000 Mexicans since late 2006.
Zambada Niebla’s contention that he is essentially a U.S. government informant also takes on added intrigue with respect to another series of legal cases now pending in the U.S. and Panama.
To understand the threads that connect those cases, it is necessary to revisit the mysterious crash of a Gulfstream II corporate jet on Sept. 24, 2007, in Mexico’s Yucatan region. Onboard that jet was an estimated four tons of cocaine, which appears to have been loaded onto the jet in Colombia.
The Gulfstream II sported a tail number, N987SA, linked by European investigators to past CIA rendition operations.
Narco News has previously reported that the bill of sale for the Gulfstream jet — which was sold only weeks before its crash landing — lists an individual named Greg Smith, whose name also shows up in public documents that indicate he worked as a pilot in the past for an operation involving the FBI, DEA and CIA that targeted narco-traffickers in Colombia.
A CIA asset named Baruch Vega, who was a key player in those undercover operations, also confirmed the information related to Smith. Narco News has not been able to track down Smith, or his partner in the jet-acquisition deal, Clyde O’Connor, for comment.
Vega also claims that the cocaine load on the jet was purchased through a syndicate of Colombian narco-traffickers that included a professed CIA asset named Nelson Urrego, who was was arrested by Panamanian authorities in 2007 a little more than a week prior to the crash of the Gulfstream II jet. Urrego is only now being brought to trial in Panama on money laundering and drug-trafficking charges.
The Gulfstream II jet, according to Mexican authorities, was among a number of aircraft acquired by the Sinaloa drug organization via an elaborate money laundering scheme involving a chain of Mexican casa de cambios (currency exchange houses) overseen by alleged Sinaloa organization operative Pedro Alfonso Alatorre Damy, according to Mexican government and U.S. media reports.
Damy was arrested in Mexico in November 2007. He has been indicted on a series of charges in the U.S., including conspiracy to import cocaine and conspiracy to launder money, but as of this week, despite a request by the U.S. government for his extradition, Damy remains in custody in Mexico, according to Alicia Valle, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Damy’s case also is tied intricately to another U.S. govermment legal action against banking giant Wachovia (now a subsidiary of Wells Fargo), which was implicated in the Damy money-laundering operation. The Sinaloa organization operative allegedly used the bank as part of his scheme.
Wachovia inked a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2010 in exchange for paying a monetary penalty of some $160 million and providing a promise of cooperation with the U.S. government.
From Wachovia’s deferred prosecution agreement:
… Using false identities, the CDC [wired money] through its Wachovia correspondent bank accounts for the purchase of airplanes for drug trafficking organizations. On various dates between 2004 and 2007, at least four of those airplanes [including, according to Mexican officials, the Gulfstream II cocaine jet with CIA ties] were seized by foreign law enforcement agencies cooperating with the United States and were found to contain large quantities of cocaine.
… In total, nearly $13 million dollars went through correspondent bank accounts at Wachovia for the purchase of aircraft to be used in the illegal narcotics trade. From these aircraft, more than 20,000 kilograms of cocaine were seized.
... From September 2005 to December 2007, Wachovia provided correspondent banking services to 22 CDCs [casa de cambios], including Casa de Cambio Puebla [which was overseen by Damy].
… For the time period of May 1, 2004, through May 31, 2007, Wachovia processed at least $373 billion in wire activity on behalf of the CDCs.
… The investigation has identified $110 million in drug proceeds that were funneled through the CDC accounts held at Wachovia. [That represents only the money in the larger pool of $373 billion that could be proven to be drug proceeds.]
… The suspicious activity went effectively unmonitored. The $373 billion in CDC wire transfers were monitored in this inadequate manner.
So, the criminal cases pending against alleged Colombian narco-trafficker Urrego, accused money-launderer Damy and Sinaloa organization logistics chief Zambada Niebla all appear to connect through the Gulfstream II cocaine jet at some level.
That aircraft was allegedly purchased with Sinaloa organization drug money laundered through Damy’s casa de cambio business and a U.S. bank. And that same aircraft was reportedly suspected of being used previously as part of the CIA’s “terrorist” rendition program, according to media reports and an investigation spearheaded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
In addition, the Gulfstream II was purchased less than two weeks before it crashed in Mexico by a duo that included a U.S. government operative who allegedly had done past contract work for a variety of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, according to a known CIA asset (Vega) who is identified as such in public court records. The four tons of cocaine onboard of the Gulfstream II at the time of its crash landing, according Vega, were purchased in Colombia via a syndicate that included Urrego, who, according to Panamanian press reports and Vega, is a U.S. government (CIA) asset.
And now, one of the top players in the Sinaloa drug organization, who, according to the U.S. government, oversaw logistics for the criminal organization, a job that entailed overseeing the purchase of aircraft for drug smuggling activities, now claims to have been actively cooperating with several U.S. law enforcement agencies since at least 2004.
Assuming that rendition of the facts is accurate, it sure makes it hard to tell the crooks from the cops in this drug war.
Narco News previously reported a series of stories following the trail of the Gulfstream II jet, which can be found at this link.
In one of those stories, DEA sources told Narco News that the Gulfstream II jet was part of an undercover law enforcement operation being carried out by a Department of Homeland Security agency — specifically, ICE. The operation was codenamed “Mayan Express,” the sources claimed.
The sources requested anonymity out of fear that they would be retaliated against by the government for revealing the information.
The operation also appeared to be badly flawed, the sources said, because it was being carried out unilaterally, (Rambo-style), by ICE and without the knowledge of the Mexican government.
“This is a case of ICE running amok,” one DEA source told Narco News. “If this [operation] was being run by the book, they would not be doing it unilaterally” – without the participation of DEA – “and without the knowledge of the Mexican government.”
However, Vega told Narco News that the DEA was fully aware of the ICE operation, Mayan Express. He claimed further that it was a legitimate law enforcement operation designed to gather evidence against narco-traffickers shipping contraband into the U.S.
Another scenario advanced by some law enforcement sources with respect to the CIA-linked Gulfstream II jet and the purported Mayan Express operation is that it was all part of an elaborate CIA covert operation, possibly run under ICE cover.
In fact, law enforcers and intelligence assets who spoke with Narco News all agree that even a legitimate law enforcement operation cannot be carried out overseas without the CIA lurking in the background — given the CIA’s broad mission as the primary foreign intelligence agency charged with protecting interests deemed vital to the U.S.
Attorney Mark Conrad, a former high-level supervisory Customs agent who has an extensive background in the intelligence world, previously told Narco News that he has no problem entertaining a CIA scenario in the Gulfstream II narco-world saga. Though he stressed that he has no knowledge of the so-called Mayan Express operation, Conrad says if it was being operated in the unilateral manner described, then the CIA could well be running the show.
Former deep undercover DEA agent Mike Levine, who was part of a number of missions in Latin America, questions the legitimacy of any law enforcement operation that would plant an aircraft, such as the Gulfstream II, and undercover operatives inside Mexico to fly several tons of cocaine from Columbia to Mexico.
Would there be a sane reason [for such an operation] is the … question. For example, CIA flew many tons of cocaine into the U.S. in the Guillen Episode with no legitimate reason, but it was done anyway.
Consider Operation Fast and Furious [in which the ATF is accused of letting thousands of illegally purchased guns cross the border into Mexico to be used by narco-trafficking groups]. With our covert agencies currently so out of control [lacking] any oversight or accountability … whatsoever, the “Letters” no longer need legitimate reasons for their actions.
In the early 1990s, the CIA ran a spook mission (the Guillen Episode referred to by Levine) allegedly designed to infiltrate Colombian narco-trafficking groups. The operation resulted in at least a ton of cocaine — some estimates put the figure much higher — entering the United States unchecked. The head of the DEA at the time, Robert Bonner, incensed at the CIA’s actions, which were carried out over DEA’s objections, went on national TV and essentially accused the CIA of engaging in drug trafficking.
The CIA operation, which was carried out with the assistance of the Venezuelan National Guard under the direction of CIA asset General Ramon Guillen Davila, unraveled after U.S. Customs seized a load of the dope in Miami.
So, one way to avoid a repeat of that mistake in an operation like the alleged Mayan Express, assuming it is a CIA-run effort, is to use Customs (ICE) as a cover for the operation, one law enforcer suggests.
But the truth is, as of now, we simply don’t know the real story behind the Gulfstream II — whether it was part of a legitimate law enforcement sting, or part of a CIA covert op that subsequently, and unwittingly, became the focus of a law-enforcement money laundering investigation, or if it was simply a narco plane connected to shadowy figures who had a lot of bad luck. But there sure seems to be a lot of smoke beyond the 2007 crash of that cocaine-laden corporate jet, even until this day.
What we do know is that on April 6 of this year — some three weeks after Zambada Niebla filed his motion in federal court in Chicago claiming to be a U.S. government asset — the federal judge in the Wachovia case signed an order dismissing the “criminal information” charges filed against the lender, including charges related to the bank’s role in facilitating the casa-de-cambio money-laundering schemes allegedly employed by Damy and the Sinaloa “cartel” to finance the purchase of the Gulfstream II jet, among other drug-smuggling aircraft.
From the judge’s order, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida:
The DPA [deferred prosecution agreement] required, among other things, that Wachovia Bank, N.A. (a) acknowledge responsibility for its conduct …; (b) continue its cooperation with the United States; and (c) demonstrate its future good conduct and compliance in all material aspects with the Bank Secrecy Act…. Given that Wachovia … has fully complied with its obligations under the DPA and has not otherwise breached the DPA, and pursuant to the terms of the DPA, the United States believes that dismissal is appropriate under the circumstances.
Zambada’s claim of being a collaborator with the U.S. government will likely disappear from public view in time, under the cloak of national security, if that cooperation involved any U.S. intelligence agencies, according to one law enforcement source.
And that is not the least likely outcome, according to one former U.S. intelligent analyst who follows the drug war closely.
“I’ve thought for some time that ‘El Mayo’ [Zambada Niebla’s father] and his people work with the U.S. and Mexican governments on some level,” the individual opines. “It would be best [from a perceived national security standpoint] if the Sinaloa cartel achieved hegemony; it would reduce all the fighting, and I think the U.S. and Mexican governments buy into that line of thought.”
As for Wachovia, it has already been disappeared, in a sense, having been absorbed in an acquisition in early 2009 by one of its major rivals, Wells Fargo, as part of a $12.7 billion deal.
But unlike corporations and legal processes that can be deep sixed by business interests or national security, the trail of tears connecting the victims of the drug war, and the rising tide of indignation that tragic bond has produced, cannot be so easily disappeared.