By HOWARD ALTMAN and KAREN BRANCH-BRIOSO
The Tampa Tribune
St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport is a focus of an international investigation into the purchase of airplanes by a Mexican drug cartel.
Mexican authorities who arrested a top financier for the Sinaloa drug cartel uncovered the connection between the cartel and the purchase of two jets that took off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on separate dates. One jet was seized, and the other crashed in Mexico. A total of nearly 10 tons of cocaine was found onboard the jets, according to Mexican authorities.
On April 5, 2006, a DC-9 left St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, bound for Venezuela. Days later, it was seized in Mexico, where the Mexican army found 5.5 tons of cocaine.
Two months ago, a Gulfstream II flew out of the airport. Eight days later, it crashed in the Yucatan. Mexican authorities found 3.7 tons of cocaine onboard.
Florida Route Popular
Both planes were sold at the airport. Cartels are searching for aircraft because Caribbean trade routes from South America, via Mexico, to Florida are gaining in popularity among drug traffickers, according to one expert in Latin American drug trafficking.
Cocaine is increasingly being moved by air through Florida instead of the Southwest, according to Bruce Bagley, chairman of the department of International Studies at the University of Miami, who specializes in the Latin American drug trade.
"In the last 18 months to two years, there has been a return to the Caribbean drug routes with the drawdown because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Bagley. Drug traffickers are finding it easier to fly between South America and Florida.
The result, he said, is that traffickers are increasingly looking for airplanes such as the ones sold at St. Petersburg-Clearwater.
"These aircraft seem to be linked to a growing trend," he said.
Although the planes probably didn't contain drugs while in the Tampa Bay area, investigators say both aircraft were purchased with cartel money and were used to carry cocaine, most likely from Colombia into Mexico. The wide-ranging investigation starts south of the border and extends into the Bay area, said a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The cocaine found on the two jets represents "a huge seizure," DEA spokesman Steve Robertson said.
The connection between the Sinaloa cartel and the sales of the planes is being scrutinized, he said.
"We are working closely with our Mexican counterparts," he said. "These are significant seizures of cocaine. I do know that there are leads that lead to Florida and your specific area, but I am not at liberty to discuss what those are. There are many aspects to this case, and it is still active."
The investigation comes at a time when the United States and Mexico are negotiating a half-billion-dollar drug-fighting campaign, dubbed Plan Mexico, in which the United States would provide Mexico with equipment such as helicopters as well as access to intelligence databases.
Cartel Fighting For Mexican Trade
Last week, Mexican police issued a warrant for Pedro Alfonso Alatorre Damy, whom they identified as the head of finances for the huge Sinaloa drug cartel. That man, authorities said, was part of a ring that used drug money to buy airplanes.
The Sinaloa cartel, also known as the Pacific cartel, is one of the organizations fighting for control of Mexico's burgeoning drug trade. The organization has been weakened recently by Mexican law enforcement efforts, according to Viviana Macias, spokeswoman for the Mexican Attorney General's Office.
Damy, according to the attorney general's office, was the manager of a cash exchange business that was raided based on information provided by the Mexican Ministry of Finance as well as U.S. authorities. That investigation uncovered laundered cash transfers from more than 70 people to the United States. The money was used, among other things, to help pay for the two jets, according to a news release from the attorney general's office.
DEA had advised about the possibility of drugs being flown into airports in Yucatan back in August and repeated the warning in seven subsequent reports.
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