A Mexican cartel associate sneaked into the U.S. and headed to Florida to buy a private jet intended to haul more than $75 million worth of cocaine out of the South American jungle.
The plan was for the drugs to be divided up in Mexico and sent across the border, largely on semi trucks destined for several U.S. cities.
But something unexpected happened in Sanford, Florida ― 43 miles northeast of Disney World.
The cartel associate, Jesus Emanuel Pimentel Enriquez, 41, and his partner in crime, a Texas-based airplane mechanic, were ensnared by a federal probe led by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI.
The Gulfstream GIII private jet they sought happened to be parked on a tarmac frequently used by multimillionaires at the Sanford Orlando International Airport ― where it was being watched by one of the nation’s few specialists targeting “narco planes” used for drug smuggling.
So, instead of netting quick cash, Pimentel and Dallas resident Tomas Borjas Mendez, 38, landed prison stints for forking over $600,000 to illegally buy a plane meant for smuggling cocaine. They paid for the plane after collecting cartel drug profits from large cities and small towns throughout the Midwest and Southeast, including Chicago, Atlanta, and Nashville.
The case, which landed in federal court in Orlando, has some strange twists including a rattled Uber driver, a delayed kidney transplant, a plan to bribe a U.S. Customs official, a West Palm Beach takedown, and a grisly threat.
The case illustrates how Mexican cartels exploit rarely policed secondary airports and private plane tarmacs throughout the U.S. It also shows how a dogged task force based out of the HSI’s Tampa field office outsmarted them.
Details about the cartel’s plan, provided during agents’ interviews with Pimentel, reveal the complicated route and many stops, the plane would have taken to haul 2,500 kilos of cocaine sourced from Colombia to Venezuela before the drugs were transferred into smaller shipments bound for Mexico and eventually the U.S.
Pimentel, a plane mechanic in Mexico, said the cartel was testing him and Borjas to see if they could successfully acquire a plane. The specific cartel, which Pimentel didn’t name, planned to destroy the jet after one use to avoid detection by investigators, reasoning that drug dogs could sniff the cocaine residue if police ever stopped the plane on a subsequent trip.
Cartel leaders wanted to buy a new jet every month from the Orlando area. Before realizing they were on agents’ radar, they preordered 10 planes.
They didn’t plan on interference by Ryan Gorman, a veteran HSI special agent who has spent years honing rare expertise detecting drug planes. His secret weapons included an Orlando plane broker, who worked as a criminal informant, and an undercover agent.
“We figure if we can stop one of these airplanes from ever being purchased, then we can stop a huge flow of drugs on that day,” Gorman told The Courier-Journal. “If we can disrupt their transportation, we can disrupt their whole game.”
The Courier-Journal reviewed court documents and transcripts and traveled to Florida to meet with Gorman, touring two private jet airports visited by the cartel associates in Sanford, a 30-minute drive north of downtown Orlando, and DeLand, a 30-minute drive southwest of Daytona Beach.
“It’s really a nice niche Ryan’s been able to carve out to target planes,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Shawn Napier, who prosecuted the case against Pimentel and Borjas.
Also, Gorman and his fellow agents found a way to seize planes from cartels and other criminals even without evidence to build a criminal case. They used asset forfeiture laws and sometimes convinced judges they had probable cause because the plane buyers falsified their identities, hiding the aircraft’s true owners. The planes’ new owners could have fought to get the aircraft back, but typically no one shows up in court, where a judge would scrutinize their identity and what they were doing with the plane.
During the past decade, Gorman’s team, including HSI task force officer Kyle Coffman, and investigators with other area federal agencies, have confiscated 77 planes ― including some capable of carrying 3.5 metric tons of cocaine.
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Source: Courier Journal