American customs officers say they have intercepted a Venezuela-bound private jet in south Florida loaded with 82 firearms, including a sniper rifle, plus 63,000 rounds of ammunition.
Two Venezuelan pilots – Luis Alberto Patino and Gregori Mendez – were arrested and charged with smuggling bulk cash and goods from the US and illegally possessing firearms as aliens, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a news release on Tuesday. The plane and its cargo were seized on Saturday.
It was not clear why the weapons were purchased, but the arrests come as tensions between the United States and Venezuela have escalated in recent months, including allegations that opponents of President Nicolas Maduro sought the support of a former US Green Beret to violently overthrow the socialist leader.
The Venezuelan-registered Lear jet listed as its destination the Caribbean island of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the US statement said.
But Jared Rine, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, said in an affidavit supporting the criminal complaint that one of the defendants said, after being arrested, the aircraft’s ultimate destination was Venezuela.
“From my training and experience, I know that pilots have filed flight plans to third party countries to avoid detection of their ultimate destinations to avoid scrutiny of law enforcement authorities,” Rine wrote.
Venezuelan-registered aircraft and Venezuelan pilots have come under intense scrutiny as of late for smuggling gold, cocaine and other goods as the Trump administration has intensified efforts to isolate Maduro’s government. As part of those efforts, all US-registered aircraft are banned from flying to Venezuela.
Customs agents were alerted about a suspicious aircraft movement at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
According to Rine’s affidavit, the aircraft was referred for a customs inspection shortly before its scheduled takeoff on Saturday afternoon. When agents arrived, they found a ground crew removing some 50 boxes from the aircraft.
“CBP officers observed that the aircraft was fully loaded, from the cockpit back to the lavatory with cases and boxes of weapons, ammunition and household goods,” Rine said.
The CBP statement said a total of 82 firearms, including a Barrett .50 calibre sniper rifle and 18 rifles, plus 63,000 rounds of ammunition, were found. A firearm suppressor was also found as well as body armour. The men were also transporting undeclared cash and endorsed checks worth more than $20,000.
Patino told agents he and the co-pilot purchased the weapons on the internet and from retail shops in Florida while renting an apartment for the past three months in the nearby town of Coral Spring.
The two men are also listed as managers of a Florida-registered company, PM Global Services LLC, created in June for the purpose of “any and all lawful business”, according to corporate records. Mendez is also affiliated with four additional Florida-registered companies.
A public defender assigned to represent Patino did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. There was no listed attorney for Mendez.