Venezuela alleges Greensboro company transported weapons
On Feb. 5, Venezuela’s deputy minister of security, General Endes Palencia Ortiz, announced a weapons seizure at Arturo Michelena International Airport in Valencia, Venezuela’s third largest city. According to Ortiz, the contraband included 19 assault rifles, 118 ammunition cartridges, and 90 military-grade radio antennas, and arrived Feb. 3 on a flight from Miami International Airport.
Ortiz said the U.S.-owned aircraft, bearing the registration N-881-YV, “is operated by cargo-carrier 21 Air,” and that the weapons were “destined for criminal groups and terrorist actions” in Venezuela. The shipment, alleged Ortiz, was “financed by the fascist extreme right and the government of the United States.”
“Venezuela says plane from Miami delivered weapons for use by enemies of Maduro,” a Feb. 7 McClatchy D.C. Bureau article by Tim Johnson, identified the aircraft as a Boeing 767 owned by the Greensboro-based corporation 21 Air LLC.
21 Air is a privately held company with headquarters at 202 Centreport Dr. in Greensboro, and an operations center at Miami International Airport. Its website describes it as created in 2014 “to provide an innovative, flexible and competitive alternative to ACMI, CMI, and Charter needs worldwide.”
The acronym ACMI designates an aviation lease contract, also known as a wet-lease, in which the lessor provides aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance (ACMI) to a lessee acting as a broker of air travel. An ACMI or wet-leased aircraft may be used to fly services into countries where the lessee is banned from operating.
21 Air executives include CEO Michael Mendez and chairman/majority owner Adolfo Moreno, both based in Miami, director of operations David Norgren, and director of quality control Michael Steinke. According to their Linked-In profiles, Norgren resides in Greensboro and Steinke in Walnut Cove.
A Feb. 8 Miami Herald article described Steinke and Moreno’s past connections to Gemini Air Cargo, a now-defunct airline headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, with bases in Miami and New York, which operated worldwide cargo flights on a wet-lease basis from 1995 to 2008.
According to the Herald article, Steinke worked for Gemini in 1996-97 and Moreno registered two businesses at an address in Northwest Miami later used by a Gemini subsidiary.
The April 2006 Amnesty International report Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and ‘disappearance’ lists Gemini as one of multiple U.S. airlines utilized by a CIA rendition program to transport suspected terrorists to secret third-country “black sites” for interrogation.
The Miami Herald article quoted Alberto N. Moris, a lawyer for 21 Air, as stating any cargo aboard the aircraft belonged to GPS-Air, the company that chartered it, and that the Transportation Security Administration “is going to investigate the party responsible for the cargo.”
It also quoted GPS-Air manager Cesar Meneses as stating that “the arms shipment report was a fabrication by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to make himself appear as a victim.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have escalated in recent weeks, with national security advisor John Bolton appearing to disclose a plan to send “5,000 troops” to neighboring Colombia. In September of last year, Venezuela’s foreign minister accused the U.S. of plotting a coup against Maduro.
The Herald described Meneses as stating the aircraft’s cargo was consigned to a third party and “doesn’t belong to 21 Air and it doesn’t belong to GPS-Air.”
According to the Herald, Nestor Yglesias, spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, declined to comment on whether there is an ongoing investigation.
A Feb. 9 Business Wire announcement by 21 Air CEO Michael Mendez acknowledged news reports of the Venezuelan seizure, stating the aircraft was on “a charter flight for an indirect air carrier.” Mendez stated that, as soon as 21 Air became aware of the incident, “TSA was immediately notified and the company started conducting its own exhaustive internal investigation, which showed that all security procedures and documentation were followed.”
He stated that 21 Air “has not received any formal notification from the Venezuelan government regarding any irregular shipments to the country,” but that the company has made the “preventative measure” of discontinuing all flights to Venezuela “until the situation is clarified to ensure the safety and security of our crews and assets.”
This writer’s calls and messages to Mendez at the phone number and email address listed by Business Wire were not returned as of Wednesday, Feb. 13. Neither was a call to Steinke at 21 Air’s Greensboro headquarters, to which the receptionist responded by saying he was temporarily out of the office.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of professional translator Ana Resende in quoting statements made by Venezuela’s deputy minister of security, General Endes Palencia Ortiz.