The Martin County Sheriff's Office in Florida has filed a probable cause petition asking a judge to ratify the forfeiture of four aircraft authorities say belong to the prominent El Salvador businessman José Enrique Rais after drug sniffing dogs alerted them to three of the aircraft that they say were improperly registered in the United States.

The petition alleges that Rais, a politically connected Salvadoran citizen, used "dummy" corporations and "straw" owners to improperly register aircraft as belonging to US corporations. It says the airplanes, two corporate jets and a twin engine Cessna, bear the hallmarks of aircraft used for drug smuggling, including a coveted US registration, interior compartments that show signs of tampering, and sophisticated avionics that far outclass their rough exteriors.

The sheriff's petition says the suspicious registrations led them to surveil and later inspect the aircraft during which time drug dog alerts and the flight crew's activities and movements aroused even more suspicion.

Rais, the petition says, is under federal investigation.

"José Rais, who since the beginning of this investigation has been designated a Priority Target of the [Drug Enforcement Administration] DEA and subject of international investigation for his ties to to the organized crime groups, shell companies, cartels, and corrupt politicians," the petition submitted by Sheriff William D. Snyder says.

InSight Crime obtained a copy of the petition, a public document filed April 21 with the 19th Circuit Court in Martin County, Florida (see petition - pdf). The document asks the judge to require the owner of the three planes and one helicopter to "file responsive pleadings and affirmative defenses" and to "enter a final judgement of forfeiture." The judge who received the petition had yet to rule on it as of April 25.

Rais is an influential businessman in El Salvador with close ties to the country's former attorney general and high level government officials in various countries. He controls the publicly subsidized waste management firm called Integrated Solid Waste Management of El Salvador (Manejo Integral de Desechos Sólidos de El Salvador - MIDES), which has had contracts with parts of the Salvadoran government for waste disposal for over a decade.

Public records in El Salvador, for example, show that both jets were used for trips Rais made with Luis Martínez when the latter served as El Salvador's attorney general. The two men took their families along on some of the trips and Martínez used the planes to travel with Attorney General's Office employees on numerous occasions, immigration and port authority documents show.

Rais, through his lawyers, noted that no charges have been filed and the judge has yet to hold a hearing or determine if there was probable cause for forfeiture, as requested by the sheriff. 

"Neither the Rais Group nor José Enrique Rais or any associate of his have committed any crime, and accordingly deny any such allegation," Miami-based Attorney Jonathan Noble David wrote in response to a request for comment from InSight Crime.

(See adjoining story)

The Seizure

K9 Oscar and Sheriff William Snyder, c/o TCPalmThe Sheriff's Office began watching the hangar in early March, after receiving a tip from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about "suspicious circumstances" surrounding an aircraft at Witham Field in Stuart, Florida, 160 km due north of Miami, which was scheduled to depart for El Salvador.

On March 10, narcotics K9 "Oscar" and Sheriff's Detective James Maltese were called to the scene after other members of the sheriff's office and a DEA agent stopped another suspicious plane as it appeared to be readying for takeoff and questioned two pilots and a mechanic who said they work for Rais, according to the petition.

They were supported by DEA Special Agent Kyle Keenan, who had been alerted by his agency that "Central and South American crime groups would likely be moving their operations north of the Broward and Miami-Dade county areas in response to recent drug interdictions at the airports in those counties."

The petition says that pilot José Mendoza gave permission for Oscar to board the jets "to smell for the odor of narcotics." After the dog alerted to specific areas on both planes the detectives requested and were granted a warrant to search the hangar, where they found the bimotor Cessna that was the object of the FAA's tip and a Robinson helicopter. From March 10 to March 15 detectives and agent Keenan searched and examined the aircraft and hangar and investigated their ownership and history.

The document says detectives identified one of the planes, a Learjet 31a with registration number N-54HT as being registered to Rais Group International corporation, characterized as a shell company "of which non-U.S. citizen Jose Rais is the president."

Oscar and another dog from the Sheriff's K9 unit named "Bingo" returned to the hangar on April 15 and rechecked a second jet, a Canadair Challenger 601 jet, N-440KM.

"As before, Oscar alerted to a closet floor panel in the rear cargo area of the plane and to a seat located directly in front of the same," the petition says. "Oscar scratched at the closet floor panel and attempted to position himself under the seat, indicating that the source of the odor may be beneath the passenger compartment."

It went on to say that the dog alerted to a hatch on the outside of the plane that corresponded to the same area within Canadair Jet N-440KMthe plane, adding that "Bingo alerted to the odor of narcotics at the same hatch."

DEA Agent Keenan "discovered that the aircraft had -- consistent with drug trafficking -- been modified to seat only nine passengers, rather than the 22 passengers it was originally equipped to seat," the document says.

The petition says the Sheriff's Office with support of the DEA determined that all four aircraft are registered to corporations connected to Rais. It says the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provided information connecting members of Rais' air crew and people who act as fronts for the Salvadoran businessman's US corporations to previous drug trafficking investigations.

Shell Companies and Fancy Equipment

The Florida detectives and the DEA also investigated the documentation of "dummy corporations" they claim were set up by Rais, and looked into his business and political connections in El Salvador. Pilots Mendoza, Mauricio Serrano and mechanic José DeSantiago are also quoted addressing these issues in the petition.

The Cessna N-585PA that first caught the FAA's attention and drew law enforcement to Hangar 7 is registered to Florida limited liability corporation (LLC) Aviators II. The petition notes that Aviators II has two managers, José Rais and James Prince. Both the DEA and the Martin County Sheriff questioned the legality of Aviators II being registered as a US entity, which is a requirement for registering airplanes with a US N-number, also referred to as tail letters or call signs.

Law regulating LLC's stipulates that US citizens must make up two thirds of the LLC's managers and three quarters of its voting interests. The investigators determined that Aviators II does not comply with that law, the document says.

James Price, Rais' partner in Aviators II, "in a recorded statement has denied ownership of N585PA and admitted to having completed the registration documents with his own name as a favor to his friend, Rais," the petition states. The DEA, the petition says, believes that attempts to hide foreign ownership in order to get a US N-number could be because planes with US registration are subject to less scrutiny from airport security.

The investigation also determined that the Cessna "was previously registered to Rais's business partner, William Dee, who admitted to laundering money for an aircraft purchase to the DEA in 2011," the petition says.

Another aspect of the 35-year-old plane that caught narcotics agents' attention was that the "unkept" and badly maintained Cessna was equipped with premium avionics; a navigation and communications package conservatively estimated to cost $86,000. The avionics which are "particularly useful in accomplishing off-site landings in remote locations" were installed by a company called Peninsula Avionics, the petition says. It notes that in 2015 the DEA confiscated from the same company an improperly registered airplane that "shares a corporate address with Rais's Aviators II LLC."

The investigators also discovered that some compartments on the Cessna that should only be opened "a handful of times" during the lifetime of an airplane, and then only by FAA certified mechanics, showed signs of abuse.

"This pattern of mismatched and stripped screws is common among airplanes used for drug smuggling," the document says.

Learjet N-54HTThe petition says the FBI's contribution to the case came in the form of information provided by a confidential informant who told them that a man believed to be the mechanic, DeSantiago, had been observed spending an inordinate amount of time working on the tail sections of airplanes and "may be involved in creating hidden compartments on aircraft." It says detectives' search of the hangar turned up a laptop computer with a folder labeled "N440KM Challenger 601" containing pictures of "multiple hollow cavities capable of storing numerous kilograms of narcotics."

Under Federal Investigation

The petition says that a Missouri-based LLC named JODA is registered as the owner of at least one of the aircraft, Canadair N-440KM, but determining Rais' relationship to the aircraft is less clear cut.

A document on file with an ethics tribunal in El Salvador and signed by Rais lawyer, the same Jonathan David quoted above, and dated July 13, 2015, certifies to the Secretary of State of North Carolina that David Stone is the owner of JODA and that Enrique Rais has never been a legal owner of the corporation.

However, the sheriff's petition says Stone has been dead for over four years, and that a man named Randall Stevenson has said he was in charge of "winding down" the corporation after Stone's death.

Still, the sheriff's office insists that "JODA, LLC, like Aviators II, LLC, has operated as a straw owner for El Salvadorian citizen Jose Rais in contravention of ... Florida Statutes," making the plane a "contraband article."

It further argues, "the fact that Jose Rais finances N440KM through JODA, LLC does not protect him from the prohibition of non-U.S. citizens' owning American-registered aircraft."

Documents of El Salvador's port authority (Comisión Ejecutiva Portuaria Autónoma -- CEPA) annexed to an investigation opened by that country's Governmental Ethics Tribunal (Tribunal de Ética Gubernamental -- TEG) into relations between Rais and former Attorney General Martínez indicate that MIDES owns the Canadair jet.

For his part, Stevenson has appeared on the DEA's radar before, when his name and contact information appeared on the phone of Edgar Valle following Valle's 2000 arrest for trafficking approximately 30 pounds of heroin from Venezuela to Florida.

"DEA intelligence indicates that JODA LLC has been the subject of at least four drug-related seizures, one of which resulted in the confiscation of more than 15 pounds of cocaine and 10 pounds of cannabis," the petition for forfeiture filed with the court says. It notes that the DEA has also "had a lookout" on at least two other JODA airplanes for "drug related activity."

The ownership of the other aircraft is also still in question. By the end of its initial investigation, the Sheriff's Office had seized the two jets and a Cessna and a Robinson helicopter bearing registration N-4488N. The helicopter is registered to a North Carolina limited liability company called Citation 501RL, which is in turn owned by Rais and managed by his attorney David, according to the petition.

The document says that Rais Group International Inc., owner of the Learjet, is also registered in Panama since June 4, 2008. The property registry in Panama indicates that the company is still open. The petition says that the DEA provided information that Rais Group International's chief of air operations, Charles Blount, piloted an airplane used to transport heroin into the United States.

High-Level Passengers, Questionable Connections

Withal Field in Stuart, FloridaRais has high-level contacts with current and former government officials, some of whom have flown on the aircrafts in question. Luis Martínez, who served as El Salvador's attorney general from December 2012 to December 2015, admitted to the ethics tribunal TEG that he flew in airplanes of Aviators II, Rais Group Internacional and Joda LLC, linked to Rais by the DEA and now in the hands of Sheriff Snyder pending the courts ruling on his request for forfeiture.

Martínez testified at the TEG that he had made 18 official trips on private aircraft. However, migration and port authority records obtained by the TEG indicate that between 2013 and part of 2015, Martínez traveled at least 22 times in the seized Canadair jet N-440KM and the Learjet N-54HT. Martínez said in a February 2015 letter sent to the TEG that he traveled in those private planes -- as El Salvador's top law enforcement official – "because of the elevated risks that one runs combatting organized crime head on."

Martínez came under scrutiny while he was the attorney general for, among other things, his alleged connection to José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo." Salazar Umaña is the purported leader of the Texis Cartel, a drug transport and money laundering operation in eastern El Salvador. He was named by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) in 2014, as a "kingpin" target.

The petition also says, citing the DEA, that José Luís Merino also flew in the Canadair jet that the K9's Oscar and Bingo signaled may have traces of illicit substances. Merino is a leader of El Salvador's governing party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN) and an advisor to the president.

Merino is a controversial figure in El Salvador and abroad. A former member of the now defunct Communist Party in El Salvador, Merino has been the FMLN's representative for ALBA Petróleos, the energy initiative launched by Venezuela to unite politically and economically like-minded governments in the region, among other government-run projects.

The Martin County Sheriff's petition lists Merino as a co-owner of MIDES in Venezuela, and it states that he also "notoriously assisted a Colombian terrorist organization acquire weapons in 2008," a reference to an alleged weapons deal for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) guerrillas.

Lastly, the petition mentions that former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo also traveled in the aircraft in Martin County custody. Lobo's son was arrested, reportedly in Haiti, and is facing drug trafficking charges in the United States. InSight Crime has explored Lobo's own possible connections to drug trafficking organizations as well as the connections of his brother, Ramón Lobo, who was connected to the Cachiros criminal organization in Honduras.

* InSight Crime Managing Editor Dan Alder contributed to this report.

Investigations

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