Jetting money around for cartels
According to a seasoned former agent with HSI, who gave an interview to the Courier Journal, private jets are being used to move drugs and bulk proceeds of crime in cash for the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, without much in the way of processes to give law enforcement visibility.
“The next time you look up and see a private jet, wonder to yourself: ‘Where’s it going? Where’d it come from, and what’s on board?’ “There’s a good chance it could be illicit narcotics”, the former HSI agent is quoted as saying in the Courier Journal article.
Security measures do not exist at secondary little airports that manage private jet passengers, luggage and cargo globally. According to the article, another HSI agent testified in a Court proceeding that private airports have “no security, no drug-sniffing dogs, no police and no TSA.”
The lack of security and oversight at private jet terminals creates gaps that criminal actors can and do exploit.
For example, Robert Carlson Jr., a California computer network specialist, used private jets and private little airports for a second job – to move over US$1 billion of drugs and cash across the US for the Sinaloa cartel. He was arrested in 2017, after police received a tip. He eventually pled guilty and is incarcerated in the US.
The company in Oregon that had rented its jet to Carlson Jr., lost it when it was seized and forfeited to the government.
It’s surprising that Carlson Jr. was not discovered earlier. His lifestyle was inconsistent with his employment. For example, Carlson Jr. had a US$8 million mansion and a Ferrari, ostensibly bought on his computer networking salary. A co-defendant of Carlson dealt with laundering the proceeds of crime in bulk cash for the Sinaloa that was moved by private jets throughout the US.
Narco jets crash and burn in Belize and Mexico
In February, 2020, in Belize, a narco jet landed in Belize. It was flying “dark”, meaning its identification and tracking data were off. Its pilot and crew disappeared but it had 69 bales of cocaine onboard, which was seized by the government.
In 2019, another “dark” private jet made a rush landing in Belize along a private road. The jet broke in two shortly after the rough landing and the operators vanished with whatever was onboard. In terms of typology, it is believed to have been a narco jet, used to move narcotics and proceeds of crime.
This summer, in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, a cartel performed an emergency jet landing and then set fire to the jet on a country road to avoid its seizure. It was detected by the Mexican military after it entered Mexican air space. Not far from the burning narco jet, officials found 13 sacks of cocaine weighing 850 pounds, with an estimated value of US$4.9million.
Despite its small economy and having no corporate head offices, Vancouver, Canada, has a vibrant private jet sector that sustains many private and luxury jets business operators. Private jet trips from Vancouver are often destined for Vegas, Colombia and Mexico.
Using private jets to move proceeds of crime isn’t new. In 2014, a Canadian was indicted in Michigan, arrested and subsequently convicted for money laundering, with and through his American lawyer, using, among other mechanisms, private jets to move bulk cash to the offshore tax havens of Panama and the Bahamas.