DEA Case Threatens to Expose US Government-Sanctioned Drug-Running
Pleadings in Federal Court Reveal ICE Undercover Operation Marked With CIA Fingerprints
Federal agents this past November raided the offices of an aircraft brokerage and leasing company called World Jet Inc., based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The raid, spearheaded by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, was launched on the heels of a DEA affidavit for a search warrant, which was filed in late October last year in federal court in Colorado as part of a case that is now sealed. The search-warrant affidavit was made available on the Internet after being obtained by a reporter for the Durango Herald newspaper.
The affidavit outlines allegations against several individuals accused by the DEA of participating in a narco-trafficking conspiracy. But that is not the big story here.
Instead, the real news is buried deep in the DEA court pleadings and confirms the existence of a US undercover operation that Narco News reported previously had allowed tons of cocaine to be flown from Latin America into the states absent proper controls or the knowledge of the affected Latin American nations.
The DEA affidavit focuses on the owner of World Jet, Don Whittington, and his brother, Bill — both of whom earned modest infamy as race-car drivers who were convicted and served time in prison for participating in a marijuana-smuggling conspiracy in the 1980s.
The DEA now alleges the pair, through World Jet, have leased or brokered the sale of multiple aircraft to agents of known narco-trafficking organizations in Latin America. Those aircraft, the DEA claims, were leased or sold at inflated prices and the proceeds laundered through various businesses owned or operate by the brothers — including a resort and spa in Colorado.
Because the titles and tail numbers for the leased aircraft are kept in World Jet or related-parties’ names, the planes can be “repossessed” by World Jet after they have served their purpose for the narco-traffickers, or if a plane is later seized as part of a drug bust, “both parties can deny responsibility and World Jet Inc. can reclaim the aircraft as they hold the financial lien,” the DEA affidavit alleges.
Narco News contacted World Jet’s office in Florida seeking comment from the Whittington brothers and also contacted their attorney. None of them returned calls prior to deadline.
However, Jason Bowles, an attorney representing Bill Whittington’s daughter, Nerissa, claims DEA’s allegations with respect to his client are without merit. (Nerissa Whittington is the registered agent for the company that controls the Colorado resort and spa that the DEA affidavit alleges is part of the World Jet money-laundering scheme.)
"Nerissa and her companies have done nothing wrong," Bowles says. "She is a good business woman. She is innocent."
Bowles adds that to date no arrests have been made or indictments issued as a result of the DEA search-warrant affidavit.
Although the investigation into the Whittingtons and World Jet may seem like a typical drug-war saga, there is a twist in this case, related to the sale of a Gulfstream II corporate jet, that appears to put the DEA in the position of investigating one or more of its sister federal agencies.
Don Whittington’s World Jet brokered the Gulfstream II’s sale to a company called Donna Blue Aircraft Inc., according to the DEA affidavit.
The DEA affidavit indicates that Donna Blue was, in fact, a front company for an ICE undercover operation dubbed “Mayan Jaguar.” Donna Blue subsequently sold the Gulfstream II jet to a Florida duo — Clyde O'Connor and Gregory Smith, who has a history of involvement in US government operations.
About a week later, on Sept. 24, 2007, the Gulfstream jet crashed in Mexico’s Yucatan with a payload of some 4 tons of cocaine onboard. Media reports at the time and European investigators, it turns out, have linked the Gulfstream II’s tail number, N987SA, to past CIA flights to Guantanamo Bay.
Narco News reported on the Gulfstream II jet crash and its aftermath extensively and has uncovered documents and sources indicating that Gregory Smith was, in fact, a contract pilot who did work for the US government, including US Customs (later rolled into ICE, which is part of Homeland Security), DEA, FBI and likely CIA.
A Narco News story published in December 2007 also revealed that the Gulfstream II jet was part of an ICE undercover operation called Mayan Express.
From that story:
The Gulfstream II jet that crash landed in the Mexican Yucatan in late September  carrying close to four tons of cocaine was part of an operation being carried out by a Department of Homeland Security agency, DEA sources have revealed to Narco News.
The operation, codenamed “Mayan Express,” is an ongoing effort spearheaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the sources claim. The information surfaced during a high-level meeting at DEA headquarters in mid-December , DEA sources familiar with the meeting assert.
Those same sources now tell Narco News that Mayan Express and ICE’s Mayan Jaguar operation revealed in the recently filed DEA affidavit are one and the same. The Narco News story about Mayan Express also revealed that, according to several US law enforcers, the operation likely was run with CIA assistance and may well have been a CIA covert operation using ICE as a cover for its activities.
More from the 2007 Narco News story:
The operation [Mayan Express/Jaguar] also appears to be badly flawed, the sources say, because it is being carried out unilaterally, (Rambo-style), by ICE and without the knowledge of the Mexican government ….
“This is a case of ICE running amok,” one DEA source told Narco News. “If this [operation] was being run by the book, they would not be doing it unilaterally” – without the participation of DEA – “and without the knowledge of the Mexican government.”
… The bottom line, though, according to the DEA sources who leaked the information to Narco News, is that the real purpose of the Mayan Express [Mayan Jaguar] operation remains unclear, as does the volume of drugs involved in the operation to date [beyond the four tons found onboard the crashed Gulfstream II].
One proposition that all of the law enforcers who spoke with Narco News agreed on with respect to the Mayan Express [Mayan Jaguar] is that even if DEA was precluded from participating in the effort, the CIA almost certainly was involved on some level. They say no law enforcement operation is carried out overseas without the CIA lurking in the background.
… Attorney Mark Conrad, a former high-level supervisory US Customs special agent who has an extensive background in the intelligence world, has no problem entertaining a CIA scenario in the Gulfstream II narco-world saga.
“… It [Mayan Express/Jaguar] makes no sense and it makes perfect sense. There probably aren’t six people left at ICE who could put an operation like this together. It could well be a CIA operation working under ICE cover.”
Narco News’ past coverage of the Gulfstream II jet also established that Gregory Smith, one of the jet’s owners at the time of its crash landing in Mexico, worked as a contract pilot for a US government operation targeting Colombian narco-traffickers in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
In fact, Smith’s company at the time, Aero Group Jets, leased the Hawker jet used for that operation to the individual at the center of it — a CIA [link here, see page 16], DEA and FBI asset named Baruch Vega. That same Hawker jet, FAA records show, was later purchased by Clyde O’Connor — Smith’s partner in the 2007 Gulfstream II purchase.
From a December 2007 Narco News story:
[CIA asset] Vega, in a recent lawsuit filed in federal court, claims the FBI and DEA both used him between 1997 and 2000 to help broker plea deals with Colombian narco-traffickers and that, in the end, the U.S. government stiffed him out of $28.5 million in promised payments for his work.
It was during that work for the FBI and DEA that Vega ran across Greg [Gregory] Smith, whom Vega claims was brought in by the FBI to pilot some 25 to 30 flights that involved couriering federal agents, Colombian narco-traffickers and lawyers back and forth between the United States and Latin America as part of the naroc-trafficker [cooperating-source] “recruiting” efforts.
Vega also says that the CIA was very involved in this effort, assisting with assuring the safe transport of the narco-traffickers to the airports in Latin America.
“We did have the full cooperation of the CIA…,” he told Narco News.
On at least one occasion, Vega adds, a CIA agent actually flew in the jet during one of the Latin American missions — though he stresses the agent simply needed to hitch a ride and was not directly involved with the operation.
In another story published by Narco News in February 2008, Vega reveals additional details about the Gulfstream II jet and its role in Mayan Express/Jaguar that he learned due to his connections with US government agencies.
From that story:
… The Gulfstream II, according to DEA sources, was being used as part of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) undercover operation, called the Mayan Express [Mayan Jaguar], when it crashed in Mexico. Those sources contend the operation is being run “unilaterally” without the knowledge or cooperation of Latin American governments.
CIA asset Vega further claims that a notorious Colombian narco-trafficker named Nelson Urrego works as an informant for the U.S. government, both ICE and the CIA, and that he helped to arrange the Gulfstream II’s cocaine payload through Colombian paramilitary groups. Panamanian authorities arrested Urrego on money-laundering charges about a week before the Gulfstream II crashed. Urrego has since told the Panamanian press that he is, in fact, a CIA asset.
Given this backdrop, several Narco News sources, including Mark Conrad, a former supervisor special agent with ICE’s predecessor agency, U.S. Customs, have suggested that the CIA, not ICE, is actually the U.S. agency controlling the Mayan Express operation.
If Conrad is right, then DEA may now, in effect, be declaring war on the CIA because its World Jet investigation, if pursued to its end, could potentially expose CIA-sponsored drug running.
The DEA search-warrant affidavit now filed in federal court also alleges that Gregory Smith — identified as a contract pilot for World Jet — is also a DEA target suspected of being a drug smuggler.
From the DEA affidavit:
On September 24, 2007, a 1975 Grumman Gulfstream II Turbo Jet bearing tail number N987SA, crashed in the Yucatan Peninsula while transporting 3.723 kilograms of cocaine, which was recovered by the Mexican government, as documented by DEA Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. N987SA was owned by Donna Blue Aircraft Inc., which was subsequently identified as a front company for a Tampa Bay, Florida-based ICE undercover operation named Operation Mayan Jaguar [alias Mayan Express].
Earlier in 2007, the aircraft was sold from a Delaware-based company, SA Holdings LLC, to Donna Blue Aircraft Inc., which in turn produced a bill of sale for the aircraft to Clyde O’Connor and Gregory Smith. Clyde O’Connor and Gregory Smith have long been targets of DEA investigations for the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Central America and Mexico. As well, Gregory Smith currently works as a contract pilot for Don Whittington and World Jet Inc. Don Whittington and World Jet Inc. were implicated in the brokering of the sale of N987SA from SA Holdings LLC to the undercover company, Donna Blue Aircraft Inc.
… Gregory Smith has been identified in other DEA investigations as a pilot of interest due to intelligence that indicated he was a contract pilot who has flown loads of cocaine and marijuana from South and Central America to other points in the United States and Mexico.
Narco News recently contacted World Jet and asked to speak with Gregory Smith. The individual who answered the phone responded that Smith was unavailable, adding that she had "not seen him in a while.”
Could pilot Gregory Smith’s alleged drug-smuggling runs, as outlined in the DEA affidavit, actually have been part of Mayan Jaguar/Express, or various CIA operations, that were unknown to DEA?
Tosh Plumlee, a former CIA contract pilot who has blown the whistle on past CIA-sponsored drug-running operations, concludes that the answer to that question is “simple.”
“The CIA’s fingerprints are everywhere [on this operation],” Plumlee adds.
Still, it’s difficult to know with absolute certainty, based on the available evidence, the full extent of any CIA involvement. But there are other facts related to this case that should raise eyebrows for anyone in the US government empowered to investigate such matters.
For example, Joao Malago, one of the owners of the alleged ICE front company Donna Blue, confirmed to Narco News previously that he served as a business partner in a biofuels company called Atlantic Alcohol that listed among its officers an individual named Larry Peters, owner of Skyway Aircraft Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Skyway also happens to have brokered the sale of nine planes to Venezuelan buyers between 2003 and 2008, based on a past Narco News investigation. At least two of them were later identified as aircraft that were used in drug-trafficking operations.
Peters and Malago have previously denied having any connections to drug traffickers. In fact, based on the revelations in the recent DEA affidavit, it would appear that Malago and Peters are far more likely to have US government connections.
Both the Gulfstream II jet sold by Malago’s Donna Blue to O’Connor and Smith as well as one of the Peters’ Skyway Aircraft planes (a Beechcraft King Air 200) sold to a Venezuelan buyer were later found crashed or abandoned and linked to cocaine payloads — the Gulfstream II in Mexico after crashing in the Yucatan and the Beechcraft King Air 200 in Nicaragua. Both of those aircraft sported tail numbers at the time that linked them to apparent prior use by the CIA.
From a Narco News story published in March 2008:
Skyway Aircraft Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida, sold the aircraft [Beechcraft King Air 200] to a Venezuelan purchaser in October 2004, about a month before it was apprehended in a Nicaraguan cotton field linked to a payload of some 1,100 kilos of cocaine. The Beech 200 was found in Nicaragua bearing a false tail number (N168D), which FAA records show is registered to a North Carolina company called Devon Holding and Leasing Inc.
According to press reports and an investigation conducted by the European Parliament into the CIA’s terrorist rendition program, Devon Holding is a CIA shell company and N168D is a tail number to a CIA aircraft.
ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell confirmed that Mayan Jaguar was an ICE operation “initiated to target drug trafficking.” She said it ran from around 2003 to 2007 and was then shut down.
“I don’t’ think anything [arrests or indictments] came out of it,” she says.
A DEA source told Narco News that it is surprising that ICE would allow an operation like Mayan Jaguar/Express to continue for so many years without producing any law enforcement results, adding that such an expensive and expansive international operation would not be launched and continued for years at DEA unless strict controls were in place and it also produced results — such as arrests and indictments.
Yet another connection to all of this is the fact that the Mexican government claims a money-exchange company called Casa De Cambio Puebla, operated by an individual named Pedro Alfonso Alatorrre Damy, fronted the money for the purchase of the cocaine Gulfstream II jet -- which was reportedly sold by Donna Blue Aircraft to Smith and O'Connor for $2 million only 8 days prior to it crashing in Mexico.
Damy was an alleged money launder for Mexico's Sinaloa narco-trafficking organization. This is important because Jesus Zambada Niebla, now awaiting trial in Chicago, is a top-level Sinaloa player who claims in his court pleadings that the drug-trafficking organization had a quid pro quo agreement with the US government that allowed its senior members to operate with impunity in exchange for providing US law enforcement and intel agencies with information about rival cartels.
The United States government considered the arrangements with the Sinaloa Cartel an acceptable price to pay, because the principal objective was the destruction and dismantling of rival cartels by using the assistance of the Sinaloa Cartel — without regard for the fact that tons of illicit drugs continued to be smuggled into Chicago and other parts of the United States and consumption continued virtually unabated.
Damy was arrested in Mexico in 2007 and extradited to the US in early 2013. As part of a plea deal he was convicted on one count of money laundering and this past April quietly sentenced to time served — pretty lenient considering the amount of cocaine involved and an alleged money-laundering tally exceeding $170 million, according to the indictment. A law enforcer who spoke with Narco News on background says the light sentence is a good sign that Damy had agreed at some point to cooperate with the US government.
Coincidently, Damy’s case also is tied intricately to another U.S. government legal action against former banking giant Wachovia (since sold to Wells Fargo), which was implicated in the Damy money-laundering operation. Sinaloa organization operative Damy allegedly used the bank as part of his money-laundering enterprise.
Wachovia inked a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2010 in exchange for paying a monetary penalty of some $160 million and providing a promise of cooperation with the U.S. government.
Jim Schrant, DEA resident agent in charge in Grand Junction, Colo., when contacted by Narco News confirmed that there is "an ongoing investigation" related to the World Jet search warrant that "involves very serious crimes." He declined to comment, however, on specific "individuals or events mentioned in the affidavit." Schrant also confirmed that his office is involved in the investigation.
Another DEA source, who asked not to be named, told Narco News that the World Jet investigation, if it indeed gets too close to exposing a CIA-enabled covert operation, will in all likelihood be jammed up by the brass at the headquarters level.
"Any agency that is above the law [such as CIA] can get away with anything. It's sad, and most people don't know it, or care, but it's true,” the source says. “When they invoke national security, everyone just craps their pants, even judges."