FBI probes purchases of US aircraft by drug lords
By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - A Venezuelan man has been charged with laundering drug profits to buy U.S. aircraft to smuggle cocaine, according to U.S. court documents, as the FBI broadens a probe into South American cocaine kings.
The man, Pedro Jose Benavides-Natera, goes on trial in Miami next month and more arrests may be forthcoming, thanks to a confidential informant who shed light on the drug-money-for-aircraft laundering scheme, the documents show.
The documents were filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in October.
In them, FBI agent Michael Hoenigman says the informant was "personally involved with a confederation of individuals" whose job was to scout out U.S. aircraft desired by Venezuela-based drug traffickers and help broker transactions to buy them to ferry cocaine shipments around the globe.
Last year's arrest of Benavides was part of a more sweeping investigation of money laundering schemes aimed at uncovering the purchase of aircraft in the United States by South American traffickers, the court documents show.
Steve Robertson, a spokesman at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, described the schemes as "very imaginative" since they involved the purchase of a tangible asset for multiple possible uses.
"In addition to the product, in this case an airplane that has a high resale value, it's something they can use to use for their smuggling," he said.
According to the indictment, Benavides opened an account at what it identified as the Commerce Bank in Miami in December 2000 that was subsequently used to launder drug profits and broker deals for the purchase of a U.S.-registered twin-engine King Air E90 in September 2006.
The plane was bought from a Miami company and sent to Venezuela using money that Benavides allegedly funneled from Venezuela-based traffickers through a Mexican money exchange into his Miami account.
An attorney for Benavides could not be reached for comment. But while he entered a not guilty plea earlier this month, the indictment says he confessed to handling "money transfers" for unidentified drug trafficking organizations to purchase aircraft used to transport drugs.
The traffickers Benavides is alleged to have worked for also sought to buy a twin-engine Cessna Conquest II using drug profits laundered through Benavides' Miami bank account, the indictment says.
The Conquest II is the aircraft of choice among traffickers transporting cocaine from Venezuela for the long haul to Africa, the indictment says. Africa has become an increasingly important staging point for drug shipments to Europe, international police organizations say.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)