Air charter firm, client both deny role in alleged shipment of arms to Venezuela

An air cargo shipper and its client on Friday both denied knowledge of the small shipment of weapons that Venezuelan authorities said arrived in the city of Valencia earlier this week on a flight from Miami International Airport.

A Boeing 767 operated by 21 Air, which maintains an operating facility at MIA, delivered cargo earlier this week that included 19 assault rifles, telescopic sights, radio antenna and other materiel to the international airport in Valencia, according to a Bolivarian National Guard general, Endes Palencia.

The charge drew sharp denials both from the Greensboro, North Carolina-based air cargo company and a second company that arranged the shipment.

A lawyer for 21 Air, Alberto N. Moris, said Friday that the company was never formally notified by Venezuela of any arms seizure and had no knowledge of the cargo that was aboard its plane since it had been chartered by a second company.

“All of the cargo on board our aircraft was from the GPS-Air, who chartered the aircraft,” Moris said. The Transportation Security Administration “is going to investigate the party responsible for the cargo,” he added.

“GPS-Air has been the only company that has chartered it for the last few weeks to Valencia, Venezuela,” Moris added.

Air charter companies used in global trade routinely insure, fly and maintain aircraft under arrangements known as “wet leasing,” but are not responsible for the goods consigned to them for shipment.

For its part, a manager at GPS-Air scoffed at the suggestion that assault weapons would be shipped out of Miami’s busy airport.

“Only a fool would try sending guns out of the airport,” said Cesar Meneses, who identified himself as a manager at the cargo shipper, which has done business with 21 Air and other companies. He said the arms shipment report was a fabrication by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to make himself appear as a victim.

Meneses said any cargo that GPS-Air would have consigned to 21 Air came from third parties.

“The cargo doesn’t belong to 21-Air and it doesn’t belong to GPS-Air,” Meneses said.

The denials only added to the mystery of the alleged shipment — a mystery compounded by perhaps coincidental ties between the chairman and a key employee of 21 Air with a company that Amnesty International says once took part in a CIA program to whisk suspected terrorists to black site jails around the world, a procedure known as rendition.

The chairman and majority owner of 21 Air, Adolfo Moreno, has set up or registered at least 14 other companies in Florida over the past two decades. Among the people brought on to 21 Air when it formed in 2014 was Michael Steinke, its director of quality control.

Both men appear to have either coincidental or direct ties to Gemini Air Cargo, a company that Amnesty International described in a 2006 report as being among more than 30 air charter services believed to have taken part in a CIA program of rendition in which suspected terrorists were abducted abroad and taken to third-country secret “black sites” for interrogation.

Steinke worked for Gemini Air Cargo from 1996 into 1997, years before the rendition program got off the ground, according to a 2016 Department of Transportation document that gave a summary of 21 Air’s operations as an air cargo carrier.

For his part, Moreno registered two businesses at an address in northwest Miami that was later used by a subsidiary of Gemini Air Cargo.

The two businesses were Airline Management Group, incorporated in 1987, and Florida Franchise Development, set up in 2001, both listing their addresses as 1750 NW 66th Ave. in Miami. In 2005, Gemini Cargo Logistics Inc., which Bloomberg lists as a subsidiary of Gemini Air Cargo, registered to that address. The timeline of when the businesses used the address was not clear.

A visit to the site Friday showed that it is now used by Avianca, the national airline of Colombia.

The CIA declined to comment for this story.

Nestor Yglesias, spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, declined to comment on whether the agency is investigating the alleged arms shipment to Venezuela.

21 Air operates out of four mezzanine suites in the west cargo area of Miami International Airport, sharing a nondescript building with companies like Virgin Airlines and Swissport.

Located directly west of MIA’s airstrips, the building is owned by the airport and airport spokesman Greg Chin confirmed 21 Air is a tenant there.

The suites are separated by function: Operations, Maintenance, Administrative Offices and Shipping/Receiving.

Inside the Operations suite, where 21 Air President and CEO Michael Mendez reported for work Friday morning, employees were seen monitoring flight path data on computers.

Building 706, where 21 Air leases space with other companies, measures 181,497 square feet.

The chairman and chief executive of 21 Air – Moreno and Mendez — are longtime colleagues who have worked together in a series of South Florida aviation and transportation companies ferrying goods to Latin America.

Moreno is the majority owner of 21 Air and 21 Cargo, the latter of which was established in 1999. The company has also had a web of affiliated companies over the years with names such as JW Aviation, Apple Aviation and Conaire.

The company 21 Cargo used to be known as Solar Cargo, and was affiliated with a cargo company by the same name that was started in Valencia in February 2001. That business operated in Florida as Solar Cargo C.A., according to court and state records.

But Moreno was forced to change the name of his company last fall when Solar Cargo C.A. severed its relationship with Moreno.

“There is no affiliation with 21 Air and Solar,” said Orlando De Frietes Jr., the son of the Solar Cargo owner.

Mendez has served as the president and CEO of 21 Air since it was created in 2014, according to federal aviation documents, and is an airframe and power-plant mechanic. He has worked in the aviation industry, including specializing in airline certifications, for over four decades.

Experts in global arms trafficking said several aspects of the alleged weapons shipment were puzzling, and don’t fit in a pattern that would suggest U.S. government involvement.

“If the government was doing it, it would make more sense to drop guns that the Venezuelans use. Not only for plausible deniability, but for the ability to use captured ammo,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at StratFor, an Austin, Texas, a geopolitical intelligence firm.

Stewart said the assorted weapons appeared to be more of the type that someone could buy at a Florida gun show rather than the standard weapons a government might want its allied forces to have.

Also puzzling was the attempt to take weapons directly to a commercial airport, where customs inspectors and others could easily detect it.

“Coming into an official port of entry with weapons to arm the enemy does not translate into a good strategy,” said Douglas Farah, a senior visiting fellow at the National Defense University’s Center For Strategic Research.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.