A mystery flight, and its fiery end

McClatchy Foreign StaffNovember 28, 2013 

The flight of an executive jet from Mexico to the Caribbean isle of Bonaire and on to a grassy field in Venezuela’s remote south, where it was reduced to a smoldering heap, seems straight out of a novel about the drug trafficking underworld.

The flight occurred Nov. 4, and it has been in the news ever since.

What is most curious is the row that the aircraft’s destruction has sparked between Mexico and Venezuela, and Mexico’s pique about a flight that had all the signs of a drug transport excursion.

Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office issued a statement yesterday (Spanish language link) declaring that it would press on the case until there is “total clarification.” That may be a Mexican elocution for: Stop asking questions. Let the case drop.

The aircraft in question was a Hawker Siddeley DH-125 executive jet that came off the factory line in 1969 -- an old disposable aircraft of the kind favored by drug traffickers. If they need to abandon it after a drug flight, no big deal.

The plane, carrying Mexican license XBMGM, took off from Queretaro in central Mexico on Nov. 4. It carried two pilots and five passengers. The flight plan said it would head to Bonaire’s Flamingo International Airport. Bonaire, a Dutch overseas territory, is off Venezuela’s coast.

In Bonaire, four passengers got off. The two pilots and another passenger flew on. The flight plan called for the jet to travel to La Ceiba, a city on the north coast of Honduras. But when the aircraft flew west off of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, it suddenly veered south and flew to Venezuela’s Apure, a remote state of grasslands bordering Colombia.

Apure state is a staging area for Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and is considered one of the hemisphere’s prime areas for cocaine shipments leaving Colombia’s eastern plains.

At 10:36 p.m. on Nov. 4, Venezuela’s military said it intercepted the rogue aircraft and forced it down, where it was “immobilized.” The two pilots and passengers apparently fled.

How the executive jet landed in a grassy field with no landing lights at nighttime is among unanswered questions. A photo apparently taken the next morning shows the aircraft burned to a smoldering heap. Was it shot down or forced down at a landing strip and later flow to the field, where it was burned?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said the next day that the aircraft was the latest of 30 destroyed as part of his nation’s battle against drug traffickers.

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat immediately issued a diplomatic note asking Venezuela to provide proof that it acted in accordance with international law.

The note made Maduro bristle. On Nov. 9, he told journalists that the plane carried narcotics, and that “the Mexican president should know that he is interceding on behalf of a plane that was full of cocaine.”

Whether that is true is unclear. Were there residues of cocaine in the plane? Or did it carry a full load of narcotics, as Maduro alleges? Why did Venezuela not offer photos?

A series of diplomatic exchanges and recriminations have taken place since then, and the mystery only deepens.

In its latest statement, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office says the two pilots and one passenger who flew on from Bonaire carried false passports. The four passengers who disembarked in Bonaire traveled on to Bogota, Colombia, later returning to Mexico. All four carried legitimate passports, the statement says. Three of them have undergone questioning by prosecutors, it adds.

The whereabouts of the two pilots and the last passenger are unknown.

Even as the statement says Mexico wants “total clarification” of the case, it still hasn’t answered elemental questions. Mexico maintains the aircraft was “shot down,” but offers no proof itself of that. Authorities also haven’t explained why the aircraft diverted to what is arguably a no-man’s cocaine staging area. They also haven’t said who owns the aircraft, details about the other passengers, and what legitimate reasons they might have for taking such an odd flight.

My bet is that they have no intention of providing further information. Case closed.

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