WikiLeaks: “Laundered” U.S. Helicopters Wind up in the Hands of Colombian Paramilitaries

Hughes 500(Pictured: Hughes 500.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-fourth in the series.

To get a sense of just how interconnected the formal and illicit dimensions of international political economy are, take a peek at this brief cable from the US embassy in Bogota published by WikiLeaks Sunday.

The cable details then-Ambassador William Woods’ hunt for two missing helicopters that had originally been sold to the Israeli military by the United States government, but had somehow ended up in the hands of multimillionaire Enilse Lopez, a businesswoman that was suspected of close ties to Colombian paramilitaries.

The curious history of the helicopters is in itself instructive. The two Hughes 500 military grade choppers were sold to the Israeli government in the early 1980s, but grounded about fifteen years later when they were converted for civilian use. The helicopters were then sold in 2002 to the Canadian multinational media firm CANWEST, which strangely never had the aircraft moved outside Israeli territory. The next year, the corporation sold the helicopters to a Mexican aeronautical company, that shipped the pair to Miami under phony export and airworthiness documentation supposedly issued by the Israeli government.

As soon as the helicopters arrived in Miami, they were quickly sold to Trade Leasing and Consulting, a Panama-based corporation run by Colombian businessman Francisco Alberto Restrepo Flores. From there, the two choppers were flown to Cartegena, the gorgeous colonial city along Colombia’s northern coast. The import processing was carried out by Aviones Ejecutivos (AVIEL), which was issued a 90-day temporary certificate of airworthiness on condition that AVIEL obtain a safety certificate from the US government. The requested flight operation was never issued by Washington because the paperwork about the helicopters provided by AVIEL in no way matched the actual helicopters under consideration.

No matter. In the ninety days allowed by the Colombian government, the two choppers saw heavy use by AVIEL, which used them to transport cash and other valuables up and down the northern coast of the country on behalf of Banco Agrario, which specializes in offering micro loans to small farmers.

After the ninety day window closed with the expiration of the temporary certificate of airworthiness, the helicopters were grounded and quickly disappeared. They turned up nearly a year later, when the Colombian government discovered they were being stored in a warehouse owned by Enilse Lopez’s Uniapuestsa. They were seized, and moved to a secure facility in Barranquilla, Colombia, where American officials hoped to “verify the tail numbers of said helicopters,” and “obtain answers to critical questions.” Among the questions for which US diplomats sought answers, the critical concern was just what activities the helicopters were used for before their seizure by Colombian authorities.

That the helicopters came into the possession of Enilse Lopez, known popularly as “La Gata,” is noteworthy, due to the businesswoman’s connections to conservative paramilitary forces in Colombia, the long-held suspicion that she was a central node in the country’s massive money-laundering network, and her powerful hold over the Magangué district in Colombia’s northeast, where she is widely believed to be responsible for the extortion and violence plaguing the municipality. As of now, published WikiLeaks cables do not indicate if Wood received answers to any of his questions concerning the helicopters.

“The cat,” however, was found guilty by a Colombian court on February 1 of conspiracy for her proven links to paramilitary death squads between 2000 and 2003, though was acquitted of charges that she was directly complicit in murder. At the time of decision, Lopez was said to be in a Barranquilla hospital suffering from rapidly deteriorating health. Trouble is, she wasn’t actually there. On February 15, Lopez and her entourage were apprehended by Colombian police in her hometown Magangué, where she had arrived from Cartagena for her daughter’s birthday party. According to reports, The Cat claimed she was had not received word of the ruling, and therefore was unaware that she had been forbidden to travel. The decision was appealed by Lopez’s lawyers, and the case currently awaits resolution by the high court in Bogotá.