In August 2000, Panamanian officials working on behalf of US Customs seized a
$1.5 million dollar Bell Helicopter in Panama. Several years earlier, they
seized $335,800 cash from a Bell Helicopter bank account in the United States.
Both were seized because of alleged involvement in the Black Market Peso
Exchange. Government officials speaking on a condition of anonymity said
that the highly unusual business transactions which led to the seizures were
virtually impossible to disguise as legitimate business dealings.
Zill was a producer and Bergman was series reporter for FRONTLINE's "Drug Wars"
Customs agents originally learned about the helicopter because they were
participating in an undercover money laundering investigation in Mobile,
Alabama. Undercover Customs agents posing as money brokers would pick up large
quantities of cash (drug proceeds) from the streets of several major US cities.
They would then deposit the cash into special undercover bank accounts and
await instructions from their Colombian contacts on where the send the money.
The agents received instructions to make five wire transfers totalling $335,800
into the Bell Helicopter bank account, according to the seizure affidavit. The
money was partial payment for a helicopter.
After investigating further, Customs agents learned that in early 1998, a
representative for Victor Carranza approached the Bell Helicopter sales agent
in Colombia about purchasing a helicopter. Carranza is a well-known emerald
mine owner who US and Colombian investigators say has links to the drug trade
and the right wing paramilitary groups in Colombia. The Bell Helicopter sales
agent has denied knowing that Carranza was anything other than a legitimate
Customs investigators learned that the Carranza representative who approached
Bell had been indicted in the United States for drug trafficking in 1990.
Customs investigators also learned that the Panamanian company used to purchase
the helicopter from Bell was a front for Carranza and had been previously
linked to drug trafficking.
In mid-1999, US Customs filed an affidavit to seize all the drug money they
had wired into bank accounts as part of their undercover operation. Most of
the smaller companies involved did not even contest the seizures, but Bell
Helicopter immediately responded by saying that they had no knowledge that this
was drug money, according to the case record. The company "denies that any
funds on deposit in [their bank account] are proceeds of drug trafficking
activity or are forfeitable pursuant to any statutory provision," according to
the Bell court filings.
Customs officials decided to investigate further, and in interviewing the Bell
sales agent in Colombia, found out that the Customs wire transfers had been
only partial payment for the helicopter. Customs agents learned that other
irregular wire transfers had been used to pay for the rest of the helicopter's
sale price of $1.5 million dollars. "Between June and September 1998, Bell
received 26 payments totaling $1,029,000 which were also credited towards the
purchase of the defendant helicopter," the affidavit says. All of these
payments came from US individuals and companies who had no link to Carranza or
his company, a very unusual way to do business.
The US government used the additional evidence to seize the actual helicopter
in August of this year, saying that the entire helicopter was paid for through
the black peso system. To date, no one has contested the seizure of the
helicopter. US officials located it in Panama and seized it on August 4,
Ironically, at the same time Bell Helicopter was negotiating the helicopter
sale to Carranza, the company was actively lobbying Congress to earn the
contract for helicopters as part of Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia is the
$1.3 billion aid package that the US Government just approved to help Colombia
fight narcotics trafficking. It includes 42 refurbished Huey IIs from Bell
Helicopter at a price of over $130 million dollars.
And, another irony: these Huey IIs potentially will be used by the Colombian
military to fight the paramilitary groups who are linked to Carranza.
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