December 19, 2007 (Bill Conroy, Narco News Bulletin) - 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 sources have requested anonymity out of fear they will be retaliated against by the government for revealing the information.
The operation 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 — at least it was up until the point of the coke-packed Gulfstream jet’s abrupt impact with the Earth.
“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 fact that the Gulfstream was forced to ditch over the Yucatan after being refused landing clearance at two Mexican airports is strong evidence that this operation, if ICE operated as alleged, does not have the proper controls in place, law enforcement sources told Narco News. If the operation was being adequately monitored and controlled by U.S. law enforcement, in coordination with Mexican authorities, the jet would have been directed to a safe landing zone, they add.
Mexican law enforcers subsequently apprehended the two pilots of the downed jet. Neither one of them appears to be a U.S. citizen, according to Mexican press accounts.
Narco News has previously reported that the bill of sale for the Gulfstream jet — which was sold only weeks before its crash landing — lists an individual named Greg Smith, whose name also shows up in public documents that indicate he worked as a pilot in the past for an operation involving the FBI, DEA and CIA that targeted narco-traffickers in Colombia.
Mexican authorities interrogated the pilots of the ill-fated cocaine jet prior to turning them over to DEA agents for questioning. DEA confirmed that it is now handling the investigation into the jet crash and subsequent seizure of the cocaine.
It appears that the pilots spilled the beans on the ICE operation during their interrogation by Mexican authorities, DEA sources tell Narco News. The meeting held at DEA headquarters was focused, in part, on assessing the implications of that information. The Mexican government has chosen not to raised a stink over the matter, the DEA sources claim, for fear of jeopardizing the pending $1.4 billion U.S. aid package promised as part of the proposed “Mérida Iinitiative” — commonly known as “Plan Mexico,” which will provide a Christmas list of training and equipment to the Mexican government to battle “drug cartels.”
Mexican law enforcement authorities recently arrested an alleged money launder, Pedro Alfonso Alatorre Damy , who they contend is linked to the Sinaloa narco-trafficking organization. They claim the narco-trafficking organization financed the purchases of the Gulfstream II as well as a DC-9 jet that was busted by Mexican authorities last April with a payload of some 5.5 tons of cocaine. Both jets were sold while parked at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, according to a recent report by Howard Altman of the Tampa Tribune .
So, there is clearly a connection between the two jets. The thread that ties the Sinaloa organization, Greg Smith and the U.S. federal agencies that appear to have been involved together, however, remains very unclear. Did the cartel hire Smith and Clyde O’Connor (the other individual listed on the Gulfstream’s bill of sale) to handle the plane’s purchase, unaware that it was falling into a sting? Was the Sinaloa organization’s connection to the planes simply invented by authorities as part of a cover-up of the operation? Or is there another explanation yet to be found?
The alleged involvement of ICE in a unilateral counter-narcotics operation in a foreign nation is unusual (though not unprecedented) because DEA is supposed to be the lead U.S. agency in such efforts. ICE, however, generated a major controversy when it ran an operation several years ago targeting the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) narco-trafficking organization in Juarez, Mexico. As part of that operation, ICE placed an informant (a former Mexican cop) inside a VCF cell in Juarez and continued the operation even after ICE agents became aware of their informant’s participation in murder.
That case, since dubbed the House of Death  resulted in some 12 people being tortured, murdered and buried in the back yard of a house in Juarez – all in an effort to make a drug case against a VCF lieutenant. As is alleged with the current Mayan Express operation, ICE officials were accused of running the House of Death case unilaterally and going to great lengths to conceal information about their informant and the murders from the Mexican government.
ICE public affairs officials in Washington, D.C., failed to reply to several inquiries (by phone and e-mail) from Narco News seeking comment on the alleged Mayan Express operation.
Narco News also contacted Steve Robertson, a special agent assigned to DEA public affairs in Washington, D.C., for comment about the allegation that the Gulfstream II jet that crashed in Mexico in late September with some four tons of coke onboard was, in fact, part of an ICE operation.
I can’t confirm or deny that it was an ICE operation — even if I knew it was the case, and I’m not saying it’s true.
Our Mexico City office is working an investigation on it now. It started after the seizure [the jet crash]. It’s an ongoing investigation.
… It was not a DEA operation. The briefings I’ve gotten is that our investigation started after the seizure.
Out of Control
The structure of the Mayan Express operation, as outlined by the DEA sources, puzzles law enforcement officials contacted by Narco News. The operation appears to be playing out in Mexico and Colombia (where the cocaine was picked up) absent any tight law enforcement controls. As a result, the law enforcers agree, any criminal cases that might result from the effort likely could only be pursued once the cocaine entered the United States via an ICE-controlled delivery point, given the laws governing complex international narcotics investigations.
The apparent lack of control of the operation south of the U.S. border also raises questions as to how much of the cocaine made its way into the United States unchecked due to the mechanizations of crafty informants and assets involved in the operation or the indifference of federal agents looking to advance a career-boosting case. In the case of the House of Death, the informant actually smuggled a 100 pounds of marijuana  across the U.S. border behind the backs of his ICE handlers, yet ICE continued to use the informant.
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 operation remains unclear, as does the volume of drugs involved in the operation to date.
Spooks at the Levers
One proposition that all of the law enforcers who spoke with Narco News agreed on with respect to the Mayan Express 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.
Some U.S. media have reported that the Gulfstream II jet that crashed in Mexico in September is suspected of possible links to the CIA’s terrorist rendition program and that the aircraft made several trips to Guantanamo Bay in years past — prior to being enlisted as a cocaine transport plane.
Confirming that information independently has proven difficult, but Narco News did find a report from a British government agency that lists the Gulfstream II’s registration number (N987SA) among the aircraft registration numbers European investigators were interested in obtaining more information about in relation to a probe into CIA rendition flights.
Information on N987SA — along with a number of other jets — was released to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in June 2006 by Britain’s Department of Transport.
From the British agency’s  Web site:
On 7 April the Government published flight plan data received from Eurocontrol, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, concerning the movement of certain US aircraft into or out of UK aerodromes since 1 January 2001. This data had previously been released by Eurocontrol to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to assist with its enquiry into allegations of “extraordinary rendition” flights operating within Europe. It provided information on the aircraft’s type, registration number, date and time of flight, point of origin and destination and recorded user’s name. It did not however contain information about any passengers on board or the purpose of the flight.
Since the disclosure of that initial flight plan data, the Council of Europe’s enquiry broadened to include investigations into a number of additional US registered aircraft. Further flight plan information was therefore sought from Eurocontrol concerning the movement of these newly identified aircraft to and from European aerodromes….
Attorney Mark Conrad, a former high-level supervisory Customs agent who has an extensive background in the intelligence world, has no problem entertaining a CIA scenario in the Gulfstream II narco-world saga. Though he stresses that he has no knowledge of the Mayan Express operation, Conrad says based on its description, he suspects the CIA could even be running the show.
Conrad says in recent years, ICE’s investigative talent has defected in droves from the agency due to Homeland Security’s obsessive focus on what he describes as a “snatch and grab” mission targeting undocumented immigrants.
As a result, he told Narco News:
It [the Mayan Express] 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.
Conrad says such a “cover” approach is not a crazy conspiracy theory. He adds that when he was with U.S. Customs — which has since become part of ICE — the CIA placed one of its agents in Japan with Customs credentials as a cover.
Though speculation, such a structure could provide the Agency with the clearance it needed to carry out the operation stateside and a convenient scapegoat if the operation imploded — along with plenty of plausible deniability.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the CIA has been accused of running rough shod over law enforcement priorities.
In the early 1990s, the CIA ran a spook mission designed to infiltrate Colombian narco-trafficking groups that resulted in at least a ton of cocaine — some estimates put the figure much higher — entering the United States unchecked. The former head of the DEA, Robert Bonner, incensed at the Agency’s actions, which were carried out over DEA’s objections, went on national TV  at the time and essentially accused the CIA of engaging in drug trafficking.
The CIA operation, which was carried out with the assistance of the Venezuelan National Guard, unraveled after U.S. Customs seized a load of the dope in Miami.
So, one way to avoid a repeat of that mistake in an operation like the alleged Mayan Express, assuming it is a CIA-run effort, is to use Customs (ICE) as a cover for the operation, one law enforcer suggests.
Whatever the Mayan Express is designed to accomplish, the DEA sources who came forward with this information did so because they are convinced that the operation could jeopardize future legitimate law enforcement efforts overseas, but that official Washington will do whatever it can to cover-up the mess.
Congress could get to the bottom of these allegations, if it chose to, but the DEA sources contend that the Mayan Express has delivered a can of worms to their doorstep that no one wants to open during this election season.