A Venezuela-bound private jet loaded with weapons and cash was stopped from leaving the United States from south Florida on Saturday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection revealed.
The plane was intercepted at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport loaded with 82 firearms, including a sniper rifle, plus 63,000 rounds of ammunition, authorities said Tuesday.
The jet’s pilots – Venezuelan nationals Luis Alberto Patino, 36, and Gregori Mendez, 40 – were arrested and charged with smuggling bulk cash and goods from the U.S.
They were also charged with illegally possessing firearms as aliens, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a news release.
The Venezuelan-registered Lear jet listed the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines as its final destination but one of the pilots confessed after arrest that Venezuela was its ultimate goal.
‘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,’ Jared Rine, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, said in an affidavit supporting the criminal complaint against the pilots.
The CBP statement said a total of 82 firearms, including a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle and 18 rifles, plus 63,000 rounds of ammunition, were found. A firearm suppressor was also found as well as body armor, it said.
The pilots were found carrying $20,312 in undeclared cash and $2,618.53 in endorsed checks.
The U.S. statement said customs agents were alerted about a suspicious aircraft movement at the south Florida airport.
According to Rine’s affidavit, the aircraft was referred for a customs inspection shortly before its scheduled takeoff Saturday afternoon.
When agents arrived, they found a ground crew removing some 50 boxes from the aircraft, it said.
‘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,’ Rine said.
Patino told agents that he and the co-pilot purchased the weapons on the internet and from retail shops in Florida while renting an apartment for the past three months in the nearby town of Coral Spring.
The two men are also listed as managers of a Florida-registered company, PM Global Services LLC, created in June for the purpose of ‘any and all lawful business,’ according to corporate records.
Mendez is also affiliated with four additional Florida-registered companies.
A public defender assigned to represent Patino did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. There was no listed attorney for Mendez.
The plane, its cargo and a vehicle were seized, the CBP statement added.
It was not clear why the weapons were purchased.
But the arrest comes as tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have escalated in recent months, including allegations that opponents of President Nicolás Maduro had been seeking the support of former U.S. Green Beret Jordan Goudreau to violently overthrow the socialist leader.
Earlier this year, two former Green Berets were arrested in Venezuela for allegedly taking part in the failed coup.
Luke Denman, 34, and Airan Berry, 41, were arrested on May 4 and charged with terrorism and conspiracy following an uprising nicknamed ‘Bay of Piglets’ – a reference to the failed coup against Fidel Castro in 1961.
They were sentenced to 20 years in prison on August 7.
Venezuelan-registered aircraft and Venezuelan pilots have come under intense scrutiny of late for smuggling gold, cocaine and other goods as the Trump administration has intensified efforts to isolate Maduro’s government.
As part of those efforts, all U.S.-registered aircraft are banned from flying to Venezuela.
On Tuesday evening, Trump weighed additional sanctions on Venezuela aimed at halting the remaining fuel transactions permitted with the Latin American country.
The step could target crude swaps with companies in Europe and Asia, Bloomberg reported, citing people familiar with the matter.