U.S. officials successfully intercepted a Venezuela-bound private jet in South Florida loaded with firearms and ammunition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced on Tuesday.
On Saturday, authorities arrested two Venezuelan pilots, Luis Alberto Patino and Gregori Mendez, who were consequently charged with possessing illegal firearms and a large amount of U.S. currency in a suspected smuggling operation.
The statement read:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Air and Marine Operations (AMO) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO), conducted an outbound investigation of a suspicious aircraft on Saturday, August 15th., locating a weapons stockpile along with a large amount of U.S. currency.
AMO agents from the Fort Lauderdale Marine Unit were alerted of an aircraft movement related to an ongoing investigation on Saturday evening. Officers from CBP’s OFO, HSI, and the FAA responded to detain the aircraft headed to St. Vincent and conducted an inspection of the Learjet.
The agency also provided further details about the seizure:
HSI arrested two Venezuelan nationals. The AMO Fort Lauderdale Marine Unit seized the aircraft and one vehicle. OFO officers seized 18 assault/bolt action rifles with optics, six shotguns, 58 semi-automatic pistols, $20,312 in U.S. currency, and $2,618.53 in endorsed checks.
In Fiscal Year 2019, AMO enforcement actions resulted in the seizure or disruption of 284,825 pounds of cocaine, 101,874 pounds of marijuana, 51,058 pounds of methamphetamine, 935 weapons and $34.1 million, 1,575 arrests, 52,036 apprehensions of illegal aliens.
Jared Rine, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, said in an affidavit supporting the criminal complaint that one of the pilots admitted after his arrest that the plane was ultimately destined for Venezuela.
“From my training and experience, I know that pilots have filed flight plans to third party countries to avoid detection of their ultimate destinations to avoid scrutiny of law enforcement authorities,” Rine wrote. “CBP officers observed that the aircraft was fully loaded, from the cockpit back to the lavatory, with cases and boxes of weapons, ammunition, and household goods.”
It is not clear for what and for whom the cargo was intended, although the pilot’s attempts to avoid scrutiny indicate it may have been in support of Nicolás Maduro’s socialist dictatorship. The arrests comes as tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela continue to escalate, with the Trump administration imposing multiple rounds of economic sanctions in a bid to squeeze and ultimately oust the Maduro regime.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that the U.S. is considering fresh sanctions aimed at halting any remaining fuel imports with the crisis-stricken nations. According to officials familiar with the matter, the measures would target crude swaps with companies in Asia and Europe, although the talks remain ongoing as a final decision has not been yet reached.