Although the recent economic downturn has led to a drop in charter activity among legitimate business travelers, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s aviation division said he expects an increase in the use of charter aircraft by drug traffickers.
DEA special agent in charge William Brown said many drug traffickers have turned to general aviation in response to tighter security measures at airports served by airlines. “Homeland Security is doing such a good job of screening passengers at commercial airports, traffickers are moving drugs and money through other means,” he said. “They don’t want to go through metal detectors or be stopped to have their bags examined.”
However, because provisions in the law allow the government to seize property that has been used in the furtherance of a drug violation, criminals prefer not to use their own aircraft. “An airplane is an expensive asset,” Brown explained. “Drug traffickers charter aircraft and put other people’s assets out there to insulate themselves. It’s common.”
As a result, Brown said, there will likely be a continued increase in the use of chartered aircraft, especially as the pressure is built up along the borders.
Since 1991 the government has seized approximately 160 aircraft worth more than $100 million. The aircraft were used in a variety of illegal activities, ranging from the transport of drugs from South America into the U.S. and their subsequent movement throughout the states, to the transfer of money back into South America. “Getting the money out of the country is almost as difficult as getting the drugs into the country,” Brown said. “The logistics of taking billions of dollars in cash and trying to get it into the hands of the person who supplied the drugs becomes a formidable problem.”
The use of private aircraft is most common among criminals who transport cocaine and heroin, which originate in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, Brown said. Other drugs, such as methamphetamines, are typically homegrown. The cocaine and heroin generally arrive via Texas or South Florida and are then transported to major metropolitan areas, Brown said, adding that such flight patterns are “fairly common drug-type scenarios.”
Provisions in the law–both civil and criminal–allow the government to seize an aircraft, but only if it is used in the furtherance of a drug-related crime, such as distribution. The Department of Justice does not allow an aircraft to be seized if only trace amounts are found. “We have to show that the owner was cognizant of the use of the aircraft and that the aircraft was being used illegally,” Brown explained.
It is up to the aircraft owner to prove his innocence, however. Under the “innocent owner” provision of U.S. Code Title 18 Section 983(d), an owner must not only prove to the courts that he was not aware that his aircraft was being used to distribute drugs, but he must also prove that he “did all that reasonably could be expected under the circumstances to terminate such use of the property and gave timely notice to an appropriate law enforcement agency.”
If the courts determine that the owner was culpable and knowledgeable, the judge can turn the aircraft over to the DEA to auction off through the U.S. Marshals’ office. “The money goes back into the treasury to offset taxes,” Brown said. The owner will also face penalties, but the details of the case will determine his sentence. “The judges have a great deal of latitude in determining the degree of guilt,” Brown said.
Even if an owner can prove his innocence, it could take months, perhaps years, before the aircraft is returned. “That aircraft could be in limbo for quite some time before a judge and jury decide what involvement the owner had, if any,” Brown said.
In August 2004, for example, the DEA broke up a Mexican drug ring that was smuggling cocaine into the New York area via Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. The agency arrested six men and seized 140 pounds of cocaine, an AK-47 assault rifle, two handguns, $700,000 in cash and three Learjet 35s belonging to Texas charter operator Addison Express.
The charter firm was eventually able to prove its innocence, but the seizure caused “severe and substantial financial hardship,” according to court documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division. Addison Express general manager Kevin Lacey stated that the business suffered a loss of $140,000 to $160,000 per month. He also told the court that the operator’s “reputation and image in the aviation community as an industry leader have been greatly tainted and harmed.”
The DEA returned the aircraft in late October of that year, but the operator was forced to close due to the severe financial strain.
Brown said that Addison could have avoided the entire scenario if it had exercised proper due diligence. “Addison thought the client was a mortgage broker, but it never really knew. It would never ask for any identification of the passengers,” Brown said, adding that the company also failed to screen the passengers’ baggage. In addition, the customers would always pay in cash, but the charter operator failed to fill out the proper IRS and currency transaction reports.
Brown said that charter operators should always verify a passenger’s name and cross reference the information with the TSA No-Fly list. Operators should also scrutinize baggage for weapons. And if using a broker, it is important that operators know and trust that person. “Is it someone who routinely refers legitimate business customers, or is it someone new who picked you out of a phone book and is making cold calls?” Brown asked. “Those are the kinds of things, the kind of due diligence that is important.”
Operators should also be wary of unusual requests. One known drug trafficker told charter operators that he was in the “hail business” and needed to travel to areas that had been damaged by hail. “Interestingly, he often went to places where there wasn’t any hail damage,” Brown said.
One-way flight requests might also be an indication of drug trafficking, Brown said. “One-way flights would alert me because it might mean the person is delivering drugs or moving money,” he explained. “And be suspicious of cash payments. There aren’t too many legitimate business people who would pay in cash.”
Others signs of drug trafficking include attempts to disguise tail numbers, excessive locks on aircraft, modified fuel tanks and antennas, and luggage that is inconsistent with the number of passengers. “If an owner or operator were to exercise due diligence, he would avoid getting himself embroiled in these kinds of cases,” Brown said.