Why were planes registered in a Texas town with no airport? It’s about drugs, feds say

Chacour Koop
·3 min read

About a year ago, a private plane was seized in Belize with 2,310 kilograms of cocaine in what was deemed the largest cocaine bust in the tiny country’s history.

Authorities had tracked the aircraft from Venezuela until it landed on a makeshift runway in a remote area of Belize, News 5 reported.

The pilot and any passengers who may have been aboard were gone by the time law enforcement reached the plane. The plane was seized and remains in the custody of Belize government.

Authorities say this plane and others similar to it are connected to a company founded in Texas.

For years, Aircraft Guaranty Corporation registered thousands of planes in Onalaska, a small East Texas town without an airport, authorities say.

A federal investigation into these registrations exposed a complex international drug trafficking conspiracy with an estimated $350 million in criminal activity over the past five years, authorities say.

A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Texas charged the owner of Aircraft Guaranty Corporation and others in the scheme, according to an indictment unsealed last week.

The unusual plane registrations in Onalaska, which is about 85 miles north of Houston, first were revealed by several news outlets.

A 2017 investigation by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team revealed the company was connected to a plane that crashed into a home in Venezuela, killing four people inside and three aboard the aircraft.

The plane piloted by a convicted drug trafficker and loaded with cash was registered in Onalaska by Aircraft Guaranty Corporation, the newspaper reported.

Non-U.S. citizens are allowed to register planes with the Federal Aviation Administration if the aircraft is in a trust managed by a U.S. trustee.

“In exchange for entering into this arrangement, the foreign national receives a coveted ‘N’ tail number for his aircraft,” federal prosecutors in Texas wrote in the indictment unsealed last week. “This ‘N’ number is valuable because foreign countries are less likely to inspect a U.S.-registered aircraft for airworthiness or force down an American aircraft.”

The Spotlight investigation revealed the system allows criminals and foreign governments to hide illicit activities.

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In 2019, Dallas TV station WFAA reported Aircraft Guaranty Corporation registered over 1,000 planes in Onalaska, a greater number of aircraft than were registered in cities like San Antonio, Seattle or San Diego.

Ernest Gonzalez, a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Texas, told WFAA that its investigation prompted the criminal probe of the company.

“They weren’t doing any vetting at all, and that some of these planes were being placed in the hands of drug traffickers,” Gonzalez told WFAA.

For example, the plane seized in Belize was owned by a drug trafficker from Sinaloa, Mexico, who transferred the aircraft to Aircraft Guaranty Corporation a year before it was discovered with a load of cocaine, authorities say. A “simple” Google search could have provided information related to the man’s arrest, authorities say.

The indictment includes other examples of drug traffickers using planes registered by the company to smuggle cocaine and cash.

Debbie Mercer, 58, the owner of Aircraft Guaranty Corporation, and seven others were charged with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit export violations and conspiracy to commit federal registration violations involving aircraft.

If convicted, the defendants face from 10 years and up to life in federal prison for the drug conspiracy charges and up to 20 years for the money laundering, export and wire fraud violations.

“The threat posed by transnational crime cannot be overstated,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas Nicholas J. Ganjei said in a news release. “The use of United States-registered aircraft by these criminal organizations and their networks of associates poses a clear and present danger to the security of our nation.”