Con Air: Convicted Drug Kingpin, Arms Smugglers Keep Licenses to Fly in the U.S.

Federal Agencies Fail to Revoke Licenses of Potential Security Risks


Oct. 9, 2009 —

A notorious drug kingpin, a convicted arms trafficker and several other individuals linked to aviation-connected crimes continue to hold FAA pilots licenses, according to an analysis of the FAA data base made available to

The cases call into question the ability of the FAA and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) to detect and purge high risk individuals from the list of approved pilots. After 9/11, the TSA was charged with alerting the FAA of individuals posing a threat to "transportation and national security."

"Evidently from the results we found, I don't think they are doing an adequate job," said David Schiffer of Safe Banking Systems (SBS), a New York computer security firm run by Schiffer and his son Mark. They say they uncovered the cases by cross-checking the FAA's public data base with information on suspect individuals.

'Al Capone of Peru'

Among the cases that SBS discovered was that of a well-known drug kingpin, Fernando Zevallos Gonzalez, called the "Al Capone of Peru" by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Gonzalez, who founded the largest airline in Peru, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami on drug related charges in 2007 and is currently in prison in Peru following his conviction on drug trafficking and money laundering charges in that country.

Zevallos' airline was stripped of its license to fly in the U.S. in 2004. Yet somehow Zevallos was able to keep his own individual aviation license, issued in 1992, even though FAA regulations specifically list "drug kingpin activity" as grounds for emergency revocation of a license.

The government apparently failed to cross-check the FAA's list of approved pilots with other federal watch lists. Zevallos has been on a black list of foreign drug kingpins since 2004 and his associates and network of aviation companies are also on a special watch list setup by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

FAA License

Among the individuals named on the OFAC watch list is Enrique Canaval Landazuri, described as a "close business associate" of Zevallos. Like Zevallos, Canaval Landazuri also still has his FAA license, issued in 2007.

"I can't understand why the license wasn't revoked when Federal laws dictate that they do," said Schiffer. "The FAA is potentially violating the Kingpin Act."

Pedro Benavides Natera was convicted in 2006 for purchasing planes that were to be used for drug trafficking between South America and the United States. Natera is currently in federal prison in Miami and is not expected to be released until 2012, yet still remains on the FAA's list of active license holders.

In another case, Romulo Alfredo Martinez, a former Venezuelan Air Force Officer, pleaded guilty to federal weapons trafficking charges in 2003 after trying to fly shipments of arms from the U.S. to rebels in Columbia. Martinez spent time in a U.S. federal prison and was released in 2005. As of today he still has his pilot's license, first issued to him in 1993. Co-defendant Gerald Morey was also convicted of federal arms trafficking violations for his role in the scheme; like Martinez, Morey is still licensed to fly by the FAA.

"This is a serious, egregious situation that these national security risks have not been identified by the TSA/FAA," said Schiffer. "They are using their aviation certification to facilitate their criminal activities. Their licenses are integral to the crimes."

While the TSA declined to respond specifically to the cases uncovered by Safe Banking Systems, spokesperson Sterling Payne said the TSA and the FAA "work closely together to screen the nearly 4 million FAA certificate holders to keep the American people safe."

According to Payne, the TSA this summer conducted a thorough review of the FAA list of licensed pilots, comparing names against the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database. Payne did not mention whether the TSA used other federal lists, such as the OFAC list, saying that "our efforts are focused on identifying potential terrorists looking to harm the flying public."

Questionable FAA Records?

A previous investigation by Safe Banking Systems, reported earlier this year by the New York Times, uncovered the names of six people with FAA licenses who had been charged or convicted of terrorism-related crimes or were otherwise considered a security risk. The TSA revoked the six aviation licenses in question within 24 hours of the names being made public.

Schiffer says one reason why suspect cases may be falling through the cracks is a problem with inconsistent information in the FAA data base. Schiffer says the FAA list is replete with misspelled names, incorrect dates and duplicate information, which can make it difficult for the TSA to cross-reference names against other federal watch lists. For instance Enrique Canaval Landazuri was actually issued an earlier FAA license under the name "Enrique Canaval".

"Before you can 'connect the dots' between agencies, you have to 'connect the dots' between your own records," said Mark Schiffer, whose company markets its proficiency in data mining and the use of "fuzzy logic" to accurately match names. According to David Schiffer, "We are not aviation experts, nor have any relationship except commercial flying. They should be able to do this validation more thoroughly than we do."

Eric Longabardi is a freelance journalist who is a frequent contributor to the Blotter,'s investigative page.

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