Wednesday, April 27, 2016

José Enrique Rais: Prominent El Salvador Businessman Tied to Suspected Drug Planes

The Martin County Sheriff's Office in Florida has filed a probable cause petition asking a judge to ratify the forfeiture of four aircraft authorities say belong to the prominent El Salvador businessman José Enrique Rais after drug sniffing dogs alerted them to three of the aircraft that they say were improperly registered in the United States.

The petition alleges that Rais, a politically connected Salvadoran citizen, used "dummy" corporations and "straw" owners to improperly register aircraft as belonging to US corporations. It says the airplanes, two corporate jets and a twin engine Cessna, bear the hallmarks of aircraft used for drug smuggling, including a coveted US registration, interior compartments that show signs of tampering, and sophisticated avionics that far outclass their rough exteriors.

The sheriff's petition says the suspicious registrations led them to surveil and later inspect the aircraft during which time drug dog alerts and the flight crew's activities and movements aroused even more suspicion.

Rais, the petition says, is under federal investigation.

"José Rais, who since the beginning of this investigation has been designated a Priority Target of the [Drug Enforcement Administration] DEA and subject of international investigation for his ties to to the organized crime groups, shell companies, cartels, and corrupt politicians," the petition submitted by Sheriff William D. Snyder says.

InSight Crime obtained a copy of the petition, a public document filed April 21 with the 19th Circuit Court in Martin County, Florida (see petition - pdf). The document asks the judge to require the owner of the three planes and one helicopter to "file responsive pleadings and affirmative defenses" and to "enter a final judgement of forfeiture." The judge who received the petition had yet to rule on it as of April 25.

Rais is an influential businessman in El Salvador with close ties to the country's former attorney general and high level government officials in various countries. He controls the publicly subsidized waste management firm called Integrated Solid Waste Management of El Salvador (Manejo Integral de Desechos Sólidos de El Salvador - MIDES), which has had contracts with parts of the Salvadoran government for waste disposal for over a decade.

Public records in El Salvador, for example, show that both jets were used for trips Rais made with Luis Martínez when the latter served as El Salvador's attorney general. The two men took their families along on some of the trips and Martínez used the planes to travel with Attorney General's Office employees on numerous occasions, immigration and port authority documents show.

Rais, through his lawyers, noted that no charges have been filed and the judge has yet to hold a hearing or determine if there was probable cause for forfeiture, as requested by the sheriff. 

"Neither the Rais Group nor José Enrique Rais or any associate of his have committed any crime, and accordingly deny any such allegation," Miami-based Attorney Jonathan Noble David wrote in response to a request for comment from InSight Crime.

The Sheriff's Office began watching the hangar in early March, after receiving a tip from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about "suspicious circumstances" surrounding an aircraft at Witham Field in Stuart, Florida, 160 km due north of Miami, which was scheduled to depart for El Salvador.

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