Who owned drug plane that crashed in Mexico?

MEXICO CITY — U.S. authorities are assisting the Mexican government in the investigation of an American business jet that crashed near Cancun this week with four tons of cocaine on board, officials said Thursday.

One of the men listed as the registered owners of the plane, Joao Luiz Malago, said in a telephone interview from Brazil that his Florida-based company sold the aircraft for $2 million on Sept. 16 to a Lakeland, Fla., man and his partner, who Malago believed was from Miami.

Malago said he feared the man was dead because he hasn't been picking up the phone.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico had no information on any American citizens being killed or arrested in connection with the aircraft, a 1975 model Gulfstream II.

"We're in the process of a judicial investigation that the Mexican government is conducting and we are providing information,'' said an embassy official, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record. "Part of that investigation is to find out more about where this plane came from and who had it before.''

Some news reports have linked the plane to the transport of terrorist suspects to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but those reports cite logs that indicate only that the plane flew twice between Washington, D.C., and Guantanamo and once between Oxford, Conn., and Guantanamo. No terrorist suspects are known to have been transferred to Guantanamo directly from the United States.

The jet, carrying the tail number N987SA, changed hands twice in recent weeks. But how it ended up in the hands of suspected drug traffickers remains a mystery.

The Mexican attorney general's office said the blue and white Gulfstream II crashed on Monday in a remote jungle area on the Yucatan Peninsula. Authorities seized 132 bags of cocaine weighing four tons. Two men were arrested and jailed on drug trafficking charges in Merida, officials said. They declined to identify the men, however.

The aircraft was sold on Aug. 30 to Donna Blue Aircraft, owned by two Brazilians: Malago and his partner Eduardo Dias Guimaraes. In separate telephone interviews from different parts of Brazil, both men said they'd sold the aircraft to two Florida men on Sept. 16.

"We are not the owners of the plane," said Guimaraes, reached in Goiania in central Brazil.

He deferred most questions to his partner, Malago, who said from Sao Paulo that Donna Blue purchased the aircraft in July from a company that had owned it for 10 years, and then flipped it quickly to two Florida businessmen who paid for it in full.

McClatchy is withholding the names of the alleged new owners of the plane because they couldn't be reached for confirmation.

The Gulfstream was awaiting documentation when it departed on Sept. 18 at 5:10 pm from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to Toluca, outside Mexico City, Malago said. He said he learned of Monday's crash after receiving a call from an insurance company, but had been unable to reach the new owner by phone and feared he was dead.

He said he knew nothing of the plane's history or what use it had been put to previously. He said he'd been a pilot for 25 years and had bought and sold planes throughout Latin America. "Generally you don't know the history of the plane," he said.

At the time of the Guantanamo flights, the plane's operation was managed by Air Rutter International, a California-based air charter service, but was owned by someone else. Air Rutter's owner, Bill Cripe, refused to identify that owner, except to say he was a reputable businessman. Cripe also said he didn't know about any flights to Guantanamo.

(Root, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Mexico City. Hall reported from Washington.)