drug wars

special reports
THE BELL HELICOPTER CASE by Oriana Zill and Lowell Bergman


Zill was a producer and Bergman was series reporter for FRONTLINE's "Drug Wars" series
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.

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 businessman.

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, 2000.

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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