ICE Investigation Targeting Drug Planes Plagued by Scandal, Court Records Show

Was “Mayan Jaguar” a Corrupt Undercover Op or a CIA Cover?

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) undercover operation involving the sale and tracking of aircraft to drug organizations played out for nearly four years in Latin America, likely allowing tons of narcotics to be flown into the US, yet it failed to result in a single prosecution in the United States, according to federal court pleadings recently discovered by Narco News.

The ICE undercover operation, dubbed Mayan Jaguar, came to a screeching halt when one of the aircraft in its sights, a Gulfstream II corporate jet, crashed on Sept. 24, 2007, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with nearly 4 tons of cocaine onboard. Also on that jet at the time, according to recently discovered pleadings filed in US District Court in Florida, was an ICE transponder, which was being used as a tracking device.

The court pleadings are part of a case currently pending against a Brazilian national named Joao Luiz Malago, who is facing narco-trafficking and money-laundering conspiracy charges related to an indictment filed originally in January 2012.

The presence of the tracking device on the ill-fated Gulfstream II, the court records allege, alerted Mexican authorities to the fact that the cocaine jet was on some kind of US government-sponsored mission prior to its demise. Also pointing to that fact was the Gulfstream jet’s tail number, N987SA, which past press reports have linked to CIA use — several flights between 2003 and 2005 to Guantanamo Bay, home to the infamous “terrorist” prison camp.

The court pleadings also assert that Malago was, in fact, a US government informant, who operated an alleged ICE front company called Donna Blue Aircraft Inc., which was set up in March 2007 in Florida, some seven months before it was used to sell the Gulfstream II jet to a Florida duo: Clyde O’Connor and Gregory Smith.

O’Connor and Smith purchased the jet, according to a bill of sale, a mere eight days before it crashed in Mexico with its cocaine payload onboard.

Narco News reported on the Gulfstream II jet crash and its aftermath extensively and has uncovered documents and sources indicating that Gregory Smith worked as a contract pilot for the US government, including US Customs (later rolled into ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS), DEA, FBI and likely CIA.

A Narco News story published in December 2007 also revealed that the Gulfstream II jet was part of a shadowy ICE undercover operation called Mayan Express that sources claimed was “badly flawed … because it [was] being carried out unilaterally, (Rambo-style), by ICE and without the knowledge of the Mexican government” or the participation of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Those same sources recently confirmed for Narco News that Mayan Express and ICE’s Mayan Jaguar are one and the same.

The Informant

Malago began cooperating with ICE in 2004, the prosecution alleges in court pleadings, after being “stopped by ICE” in the US “carrying an excessive amount of money that could not be explained or justified….” He worked with ICE as the key confidential informant, or CI, for Mayan Jaguar until sometime between the spring of 2007 and the end of 2008 — a point of contention in the litigation between the prosecution and defense.

Malago’s attorneys claim his role in the undercover operation was to place “transponders on planes” that were sold to suspected narco-trafficking groups via a series of ICE front companies, the initial one called Tropical Air — later replaced, in March 2007, by Donna Blue Aircraft. In June 2008, Florida corporation records show, Donna Blue’s name was changed to North Atlantic Aircraft Services Corp. — with Malago listed as president.

Mayan Jaguar, however, was exposed, at least to Mexican officials — who had been kept in the dark about it — once the Gulfstream II jet collided with the Earth in the Yucatan in the fall of 2007.

“All of that [the US government’s role] came to a head when a plane [the Gulfstream II] crashed in Mexico carrying 3.5 tons of cocaine in September of 2007,” Frank Quintero, one of Malago’s attorneys, alleges in court pleadings filed in federal court in Florida. “…That plane crashed with the transponder that was placed on the plane by Mr. Malago.

“So when the Mexican Government called and said, 'Why is there a plane with the ICE transponder or United States Government transponder on our territory,' nobody would give any answers. It hit the fan, and they [ICE] shut down operation Mayan Jaguar.”

At that point, Malago’s attorneys allege in court pleadings, ICE agents met with Malago in Brazil and urged him to move his family to the US because his cover had been blown and his life was in danger — since his role as an informant had been exposed due to the Gulfstream II’s crash.

“ICE told him, ‘It is dangerous for you. You need to move your family up here.’ He moved his entire family up here [to Florida] and they continued to ask him to cooperate, and he continued to provide information and transactional details on every plane that he did [brokered or sold] to ICE up to the beginning or the end of 2008,” Britney B. Horstman, another attorney representing Malago, alleges in the court pleadings.

Malago, the court pleadings indicate further, is now seeking asylum in the US because he is facing the threat of deportation — ironically at the hands of the same agency, DHS, for which he worked as an informant. (Another ICE informant, in the infamous House of Death case, met with a similar fate, facing the threat of deportation after his participation in murders in Juarez, Mexico, while on ICE’s payroll, was exposed due to the near-assassination of a DEA agent and his family. See link.

“If he [Malago] goes back to Brazil, he will surely be killed,” Mycki L. Ratzan, an attorney for Malago, contends in court pleadings. “…Certainly if his cooperation was known, that he was assisting the [US] government putting transponders on planes that he was selling to individuals in South America, and those planes turned out to have narcotics, and that they were seized, I don’t think that those individuals would take kindly to that sort of cooperation.”

Malago’s attorneys also allege that the DHS Office of Inspector General is investigating two ICE agents who worked with Malago while he was an informant. The attorneys contend the investigation is focused on corrupt practices related to the Mayan Jaguar operation.

From court pleadings by Malago attorney Ratzan:

…It has been the government’s belief, in particular the [OIG] agents and prosecutor here [in Malago’s narco-trafficking and money-laundering case], that Mr. Malago and the ICE agents that he cooperated with [worked under in Mayan Jaguar] were somehow double-dealing, or somehow there was some unlawful activity that went on, and that those ICE agents, who by the way are still working for the government at this time, did something unlawful.

Since that time in 2008 [when OIG agents raided Malago’s Florida home via a search warrant] to the present, they have done nothing, the government, but attempt to put significant pressure on Mr. Malago to cooperate and flip against these ICE agents. He has assisted them in every way he possibly can, told them everything he could. They just don’t believe him.

And we have been waiting for years for them [the government] to now come up with the indictment with the ICE agents and Mr. Malago so that we could just address this square on.

Transponder Games

The federal prosecutor in Malago’s case argues that something is not quite right with Mayan Jaguar and its plan for placing transponders on aircraft sold to suspected drug traffickers — if the goal was to track and apprehend drug planes.

The prosecutor, Andrea Hoffman, contends that Mayan Jaguar, which ran from 2004 to the fall of 2007, nearly four years — with Malago as the key informant — resulted “in no seizures in the Untied States nor prosecutions in the United States.”

Further, Hoffman points out a startling fact about the suspected drug planes allegedly sold to narco-traffickers by Malago as part of Mayan Jaguar.

“Virtually all, if not every single plane in the ICE operation that had a transponder on it, those aren’t [the planes] that were captured,” Hoffman claims in court documents. “…It’s just coincidentally that none of those planes [the ones with ICE transponders on them] ever had drugs on them. It was all the planes that didn’t have transponders on them that had drugs on them.

“…[The] seizures and captures happened largely from crashes [outside the US] or foreign national activity with after-the-fact reporting to US authorities, not the other way around.”

The transponders acted as tracking devices, alerting ICE when a plane targeted by Mayan Jaguar crossed into US airspace. The exception to Hoffman’s transponder revelation, assuming Malago’s attorney’s are on the mark, was with the Gulfstream II jet — which Malago attorney Quintero contends did have an ICE transponder onboard.

Law enforcers and intelligence operatives who spoke with Narco News, however, say the transponder strategy employed in Mayan Jaguar was seriously flawed — assuming that transponders were the primary means employed to track the drug planes, as the court pleadings assert.

The sources point out that the drugs onboard the targeted aircraft, unless monitored independently via a separate tracking device, could easily be offloaded prior to the plane crossing into US airspace, or shortly after — rendering the ICE transponder useless for tracking the actual drugs.

In addition, as the prosecutor in Malago’s case points out, if there is no transponder at all, then the drugs could cross into the US (or any country) without setting off an alarm. In such a case, the ICE operation appears to have done little more than provide the narco-trafficking group with the means to smuggle the drugs — the aircraft itself.

And worse, intelligence sources point out, if corrupt agents or a covert intelligence operation were in play via Mayan Jaguar, or both, the transponder signal could be used as an “all-clear” beacon, assuring the aircraft was not identified as a “bogey” or suspect flight, and allowing it to land in a safe zone under the cover of being a government operation, so it’s cargo could be offloaded without scrutiny.

The DEA Affidavit

The US government, in its criminal case pending against Malago, contends essentially that the informant went rogue, set up Donna Blue Aircraft on his own and began brokering the sale of planes to narco-traffickers independently — after he was deactivated as an ICE informant in March of 2007, prior to the crash of the Gulfstream II jet.

Malago’s attorneys contend he was still very much an ICE informant in 2007 and beyond, into 2008 — well after the crash of the Gulfstream II, which would mean the cocaine on that jet, as well as the company Donna Blue, were part of a US government operation.

An affidavit filed by the DEA in a separate federal criminal case now pending in Colorado, seems to support Malago’s version of events. That affidavit alleges that Donna Blue was, in fact, an ICE front company — contradicting the US government’s argument in the Malago case.

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].

Time will tell what really is the case with Mayan Jaguar — if the truth can survive time.

Multiple law enforcement sources, who spoke with Narco News on background, point out that an operation like Mayan Jaguar, which undoubtedly was very expensive to stage (involving thousands of man hours), expansive (four years running) and which implicated international relations (Brazil and Mexico at a minimum) would require multiple high-level approvals and ongoing oversight, not only from the brass at ICE and DHS, but also at the Department of Justice and the State Department — including the US ambassadors in the affected nations.

It’s possible, those source say, that Malago — possibly with the help or acquiescence of a couple corrupt US agents — managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes for years as he enriched himself by laundering the proceeds of aircraft sales to drug traffickers all under the cover of a US undercover operation.

One law enforcement source put it this way:

This, to me, sounds like an experienced professional snitch [informant] who got caught [typical] playing the alphabet soup against each other… In this case DEA and ICE and possibly CIA.

But another possibility, supported by the fact that Mayan Jaguar produced no US prosecutions, even after years in motion — a fact confirmed by US prosecutor Hoffman as well as ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell — is that Mayan Jaguar was not a law enforcement operation at all, but rather an intelligence-gathering operation.

Another law enforcement source, with years of experience dealing with the intelligence world, spells out the argument for that scenario:

I see the distinct possibility that ICE was working with the CIA. No enforcement action [prosecutions], as in this case [with Mayan Jaguar], is the way the CIA likes to do things. There is no day of truth — no court, no unraveling as to how they acquired the intel.

For the CIA/NSA it's all, I mean ALL, about collecting intelligence. There is simply no morality and no accountability. “Who gives a damn about drugs coming into the U.S. anyway?”

My gut feeling: ICE provided cover for the CIA. And what ICE did was totally unethical. It was an example of deliberate ignorance — overlooking crimes to advance an intel-collection operation.

 Stay tuned……

For past Narco News coverage of this story, check out the links below:

DEA Case Threatens to Expose US Government-Sanctioned Drug-Running

 • Cocaine plane trail is open challenge for Obama administration

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About Bill Conroy