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Sinaloa Cartel Airline Bigger than Aeroméxico

The air freight service operated by El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel could be considered bigger than Mexico’s largest airline.

Between 2006 and today, military officials have seized 599 airplanes and helicopters allegedly belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel. This dwarfs the fleet of 127 aircraft operated by Mexico’s largest airline, Aeroméxico. That’s nearly five times the size of Aeromexico’s fleet, although most of the Sinaloa Cartel’s aircraft are on the smaller size — Cessnas (the most popular), Gulfsteams and Pipers among others.

Of just under 600 confiscated planes, the federal government has been able to resell 105, the most popular makes being Cessna, Rockwell, Gulfstream, Piper and Beechcraft. The government has earned close to $5 million by selling off the cartel’s aircraft, but those were not the Sinaloa Cartel’s only aviation assets.

During the last decade, authorities have disabled over 4,500 clandestine airstrips located mainly in the rugged northeastern mountain ranges of the Golden Triangle, in the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango.

The cartel’s drug-running success in recent years has been largely attributed to its ultra-light aircraft, capable of carrying more than 1,100 pounds of cargo between the Golden Triangle and cities on the Mexico-United States border.

Over half of the 4,729 secret airstrips, whose runways ran from 500 to 1,000 meters in length, were located in Baja California and Sonora, with 1,025 and 1,564, respectively. There may be one on Highway 8 between Mexicali and Los Algodones. It consists of a dirt runway 1,100 meters long with a hanger, a gas truck, a cell phone tower (for easy night location) and several light airplanes (which we have seen practicing touch-downs). Since, however, this is so obvious, chances are it is just for those who like to have fun flying.

Most of the cartel’s planes were piloted by high-ranking officers of the Mexican Air Force. One of the pilots was arrested in April 2008 and extradited to the United States two years later, where he pleaded guilty to the charges against him in a Texas court.

Jorge Kessler

A Mexican and German national Jorge Arévalo Kessler, 44, studied aviation at a military school in Jalisco. He declared during his trial that greed made him one of the cartel’s highest ranking pilots.

Arévalo, along with two graduates from the Defense Secretariat aviation school, Alejandro Flores Cacho and Ricardo García Sánchez, began trafficking illegal drugs between South America and Mexico as early as 2003. The other two men remain fugitives.

Jorge Gustavo Arevalo-Kessler’s career flying planes for the Sinaloa Cartel’s private airline ended with an arrest in Mexico City and an admission of guilt before a U.S. federal judge.

German by birth, Arevalo-Kessler became a Mexican citizen and rose to the rank of captain in the Mexican air force, where he worked as an instructor and trained hundreds of pilots. His post-military career was quite different.

He received an offer to fly for Emirates Airlines and could have retired with a pension. Instead, he went to work for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and flew bundles of cash and cocaine to and from Venezuela, Panama and Mexico. “He has had so many privileges given to him because of his education and his ability to fly the planes,” U.S. District Judge Gray Miller said during Arevalo-Kessler’s sentencing. “I mean, he’s flown fighter pilot — or piloted fighter planes. He’s flown commercial jets, small and large. Unfortunately, like he said, he was blinded by the greed and got himself in the situation that he got himself into.”

He is the nephew of a long-time Mexican Secretary of Defense, and was the personal pilot of disgraced former Mexican President Carlos Salinas.

His American connections are visible too. When finally arrested, Arévalo Kessler was flying a former U.S. military plane that was part of the 1990’s Forest Service scandal,  involving planes intended for firefighting diverted into CIA covert drug running operations, the most spectacular result being the C-130 busted on a runway at Mexico City’s Intl Airport carrying cocaine worth $1 billion.

Kessler’s American connections are visible too. When finally arrested, Arévalo Kessler was flying a former U.S. military plane that was part of the 1990’s Forest Service scandal,  involving planes intended for firefighting diverted into CIA covert drug running operations, the most spectacular result being the C-130 busted on a runway at Mexico City’s International Airport carrying cocaine worth $1 billion.

Or maybe the most spectacular result was this: 14 firefighters burned to death in an out-of-control forest fire in Colorado in August of 1994. No planes were available to help. They’d all been leased out on more lucrative assignments.

Arevalo-Kessler received 11 years in federal prison on charges of conspiring to engage in money laundering. He only had a few words in response, according to a transcript of the 2011 trial which was unsealed last year.

“And all these black days, I have thinking I’m — I’m praying and I just asking the Lord to get — be near and speak with truth,” Arevalo-Kessler said. “And the only thing I want to let you know, Your Honor, is that I have time to think about what I did. What I did — I did was wrong. “

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