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Latin America

The airline that footballers trusted with their lives

Ricardo Albacete opened his air transport company in Venezuela, but when things didn't go well he sought the support of the controversial Panamanian lawfirm Mossack Fonseca. He is also associated with a blacklisted Chinese businessman.
12 Dic 2016 – 6:50 PM EST

When the jetliner operated by the LaMia company landed in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz on Oct. 29, carrying a Colombian soccer team, its fuel tank must have had more air than fuel.

Although the Avro aircraft has a listed maximum range of 2,964 kilometers – 1,841.7 miles – that plane had flown 2,960 kilometers from the Colombian city of Medellín to Santa Cruz without refueling, according to a flight plan obtained by Univision.

The plane was technically four kilometers short of running out of fuel. The players from the Atletico Nacional soccer team, never knew it.

Before its fatal crash, the same LaMia jet pushed the limits of its range in eight other flights,according to a six months flight history table obtained by Univision Investiga and analyzed by experts.

Over the past six months, the company risked the lives of three soccer teams by breaking a regulation that requires a fuel reserve of at least 45 minutes flying time, one expert said.

"What this table reflects is that there are systematic violations on almost all flights," said Esteban Saltos, a pilot, air safety expert. "As far as I can see, the company was accustomed to bringing the plane to the fuel limit."

International regulations require commercial aircraft to carry enough fuel to reach an alternate airport, plus 30 minutes of unscheduled flying time and another five minutes in reserve, according to Freddy Bonilla, air safety chief for Colombia's civil aviation agency.


According to the flight chart La Mia also violated the regulation when it carried the Argentine national soccer team after a match in Brazil for the 2018 World Cup eliminations. The 2,200 kilometer return flight from Belo Horizonte to Buenos Aires lasted four hours and four minutes. The plane landed with less than the required reserves.

The table also shows that in order to cover the non-refueling routes, the airline had to fill the aircraft to the limit of its fuel capacity, without considering the weight of passengers and luggage. Because of these conditions, the pilots could not have maneuvered in the case of engine failure during takeoff, the pilot explained.

"I have no doubt that the flights that appear with maximum flight range, took off with weight exceeding the capacity established by the manufacturer of the airplane," added Saltos.


On Nov. 28, tragedy struck. The same airplane operated by LaMia Corporation SRL, carrying Brazil's Chapecoence a soccer team, crashed near Medellín as its crew radioed the control tower that the aircraft had run out of fuel.

“We need a priority approach. We have a problem with fuel,” pilot Miguel Quiroga radioed. The crash left 71 dead, grief across Latin America and a long trail of questions about the turbulent past of the airline and its owners.

A reconstruction of the jet's route, based on radar tracks, and recording of radio communications between the plane and control tower, showed the aircraft did not have enough fuel and that the pilot declared an emergency too late.

La Mia also violated the regulation when it carried the Argentine national soccer team after a match in Brazil for the 2018 World Cup eliminations. The 2,200 kilometer return flight from Belo Horizonte to Buenos Aires lasted four hours and four minutes. The plane landed with less than the required reserves, according to flight documents.


Ownership

The ownership of LaMia is a mystery. In an interview with the El Confidencial newspaper in Spain, Ricardo Albacete denied that he was part of the company and said he only leased his airplanes in Bolivia. But Pamela Justiniano, widow of the chief steward on the flight that crashed, David Vacaflores, told Univision that Albacete was “a partner in the company. The planes were not leased to him.”

Albacete did not reply to repeated phone calls and email from Univision. Neither did his daughters and partners, Tiziana and Loredana. One of his companies in Venezuela confirmed the firm was still operating but said Ricardo Albacete was out of the country.

Albacete is a Spanish-born Venezuelan businessman who first made news when a helicopter he owned crashed in 2009 while carrying the governor of the Venezuelan state of Táchira, Cesar Pérez Vivas. The aircraft, with tail number YV2439, crashed as it tried to take off in the northern part of the state. The four people aboard survived.

Albacete was identified at the time as the owner of Gurimetal, a spring manufacturing plant near the border with Colombia. Gurimetal had a contract with the Venezuelan government.

He replaced the crashed helicopter with another of the same brand and model and used it in a continued search for favors from government officials. Another Venezuelan provincial governor, Ramon Venancio Diaz Orellana, told Univision that he often borrowed the aircraft. Diaz Orellana was also one of the promoters of Albacete's efforts to create an airline company in the state capital, Mérida.

Listen to Diaz Orellana's comments on his links to Ricardo Albacete:

For Diaz Orellana, the loans were just typical “of the warm personalities” of people from Mérida. That included allowing him to pilot the aircraft “at some point,” he said. But the relationship was also beneficial for LaMia, which got a spot at the Mérida airport even before it had a license to carry passengers.

Venezuela's National Civil Aviation Institute did not approve the flight permit, however. LaMia's plans to use the Avro jets on the Mérida route was considered too risky because of the mountains that surround the airport, according to a source.

Venezuelan tax officials seized one of his helicopters, with tail number N-44969, in May of 2012 because he was behind on his payments. The source added that the influence of Diaz Orellana was not enough to overturn the seizure, and Albacete cut off their relationship.

Trying to recover the aircraft, Albacete went to Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm at the heart of the Panamá Papers, a massive leak of documents about mostly paper companies published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based in Washington DC.

Mossack Fonseca attorney Rigoberto Coronado sent the Albacetes a brief email saying there was little to be done. The document declaring the aircraft abandoned had been issued May 31 of 2012 and its insurance policy was signed only afterward, the email noted. Coronado recommended LaMia take up its case with Venezuelan authorities.

Email leaked as part of the Panama Papers:


As he fought the helicopter's seizure in a Venezuelan court LaMia registered four of its aircraft as part of Totha International Aviation based in the neighboring Caribbean island of Aruba. One of them was the Avro jet that crashed in Medellín.

Mysterious partner jailed in China

Albacete was first the public face of LaMia in Venezuela, and later turned up as the owner of the airplanes operated by the Bolivian company that uses the same name.

But in recent years the Spanish news media has identified him as an operator for Sam Pa, a secretive Chinese businessman portrayed in media reports over the past 30 years as a Chinese intelligence agent and unofficial representative of the powerful Queensway business conglomerate in Hong Kong

It's not clear how Albacete met the Chinese businessman, but the Venezuelan mentioned him several times as a possible investor in his airline project – a claim that he took back just hours after the Medellín crash, when he told Spanish journalists that he had offered to sell the aircraft to Sam Pa but that the deal never went through.

During the time that Albacete was trying to launch LaMia in Venezuela, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added Pa to its sanctions list of “specially designated” persons for trying to “undermine democracy” in Zimbabwe, an African country of 11 million people.

The designation said Pa conspired with a Zimbabwe government official, a Singapore lawyer and a Zimbabwe company to “undermine democratic processes” through businesses that supported President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country since 1987.

The U.S. designation added that the conspiracy involved agreements for trafficking in illegal diamonds, and that Pa paid “more than $1 million, plus supplies and equipment, to senior Zimbabwe officials in support of the Central Intelligence Organization,” which intimidates Mugabe's opponents.

News media were asking about Sam Pa's whereabouts at the end of 2015, after his arrest in China. La Voz de Galicia.

Just months before OFAC sanctioned him, Pa had met with Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai during a visit to Angola, according to the Financial Times newspaper in London. One knowledgeable source told Univision the LaMia airplane that crashed in Medellín made several trips to Sierra Leone in recent years.

Even after OFAC put him on its sanctions list, Pa continued doing business like the purchase of 60 percent of the Rodman shipyard in the Galicia region of Spain in the summer of 2015. Galician news media reported Albacete was involved in the deal.

Shortly after that purchase, Pa was arrested in Beijing on corruption charges. Financial media reports in March noted that $87 million that Pa kept in the HSBC bank had been frozen after he was put on the OFAC sanctions list.

“I don't know where he is,” Albacete said when Spanish journalists asked him about Pa following the crash in Medellín.

LaMia operations in Bolivia

As LaMia's operations failed, Albacete transferred them in 2015 to Bolivia, where he partnered with Gustavo Vargas, a former pilot for President Evo Morales. Several sources in Bolivia said clients negotiated with Vargas but payments went to Albacete's bank accounts.

Vargas' son, Gustavo Vargas Villegas, was director of Bolivia's National Aeronautical Registry when LaMia obtained a license from the General Directorate for Civil Aviation. Bolivian newspapers reported that LaMia did not meet several requirements for the license, such as an insurance policy that would pay for caskets for victims of an accident, like the one in Medellín.

LaMia sent its planes for regular maintenance at the Cochabamba airport in central Bolivia. “We did not detect any anomalies in the fuel tank or its functioning,” said Alejandro Heredia, in charge of the technical side of the company that performed the maintenance. “If there was a fuel problem, it was not because of the tank,” he added.

Morales said after the Medellín crash that he knew nothing about LaMia, and called for a thorough investigation. “We did not know LaMia. I did not know it was licensed, I did not know that it was a company registered in Bolivia,” the president said. “This must be investigated, how it was registered, how it was established and how the licenses were issued.”

But on Nov. 15, Miguel Quiroga, the LaMia pilot killed in Medellín, posted several photos of Morales on his Facebook page under the words: “LaMia Corporation has President Evo Morales aboard on its Rurrenbaque-Trinidad flight."

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