Owner of Rivera plane denies drug connections

5:32 PM, Dec 15, 2012   |    comments
LONG BEACH, CA - DECEMBER 13: General view of a makeshift memorial in honor of singer Jenni Rivera, who died in a plane crash aged 43 early on Sunday morning in Northern Mexico, outside the residence of Rosa Saavedra mother of the late singer, on December 13, 2012 in Long Beach, California, United States. (Photo by JC Olivera/WireImage)
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DEA spokeswoman Lisa Webb Johnson has said two planes owned by Las Vegas-based Starwood Management were seized by the agency in Texas and Arizona this year, but she declined to discuss details of their ongoing investigation. The agency also has subpoenaed all the company's records, including any correspondence it has had with a former Tijuana mayor long suspected by U.S. law enforcement as having ties to organized crime.

Christian Esquino, 50, who runs the business and has a long and checkered legal past, told The Associated Press on Friday that the DEA has been investigating him since the 1980s around the time he sold a plane in Florida to a major trafficker who later used it as part of a massive smuggling operation.

The federal government has also claimed Esquino is involved with Tijuana's notorious Arellano Felix cartel, he said, a charge he vehemently denies.

"The DEA has been investigating me my whole life," Equino told the AP in a telephone interview from Mexico City. "They can investigate me all they want and they can investigate Starwood all they want, but they're not going to find anything."

"I would have to be the smartest drug trafficker in the world to be able to stay away from a drug conviction with the DEA looking at me under a microscope for 20 years," he added.

The 43-year-old California-born Rivera died when the plane she was traveling in nose-dived into the ground last week. Rivera was an internationally known star who sold more than 15 million records in her career.

Esquino said the singer was considering buying the aircraft from Starwood for $250,000 and the flight was offered as a test ride. The 78-year-old pilot and five other people were also killed. Esquino said the pilot was an experienced airman with more than 24,000 hours flight time, and that Rivera had been considering buying a plane from Starwood for some time.

"She was a very nice lady and I'm very sad that this happened," he said. "It's a terrible accident."

He did not have any information on the cause of the crash.

"We're a legal business that has now had a terrible tragedy and we're basically licking our wounds right now," he said.

Esquino's legal woes date back to the late 1980s, and he says it's all part of an aimless witch hunt by the U.S. He said the government wrongly assumes he must be involved in drugs just because he is a successful Mexican businessman in the high-end aviation industry.

He was indicted in the early 1990s along with 12 other defendants in a major federal drug investigation that claimed the suspects planned to sell more than 480 kilograms of cocaine. He eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal money from the IRS and was sentenced to five years in prison, with all but about six months suspended.

Cynthia Hawkins, a former assistant U.S. attorney who handled the case, said it began with the arrest of Robert Castoro, who was at the time considered one of the most prolific smugglers of marijuana and cocaine into Florida from direct ties to Colombian drug cartels. Castoro was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison, but he began cooperating with authorities and had his sentence reduced to 10 years, Hawkins said.

Esquino said he only pleaded to the money charge to avoid a much lengthier sentence in the narcotics case. He said he came under scrutiny because he sold a plane to Castoro for about $220,000 that he later learned was used to smuggle drugs.

As the years dragged on, the DEA kept dogging Esquino. He said a DEA agent called him on his mobile phone in Mexico in September offering a deal.

"You tell me what cartels you work with and I'll stop seizing your airplanes," Esquino said the agent told him. "I said, `You're wasting your time.'"

Esquino, a Mexican citizen, was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2004 to committing fraud involving aircraft he purchased in Mexico, then falsified the planes' log books and re-sold them in the United States. He now denies that charge as well, and has since been deported.

This year, the government seized two Starwood planes in Tucson and Texas: a Gulfstream jet and a Hawker 700 worth a combined $2.5 million.

The DEA also has subpoenaed all of Starwood's records dating back to 2007, including its relationship former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank-Rhon, a gambling mogul and member of one of Mexico's most powerful families. Law enforcement officials have long suspected Hank-Rhon is tied to organized crime but no allegations have been proven. He has consistently denied any criminal involvement.

Esquino said Hank-Rhon's involvement with his company was only through renting planes.

"The DEA has destroyed my business, they have destroyed my reputation. That's how they win," Esquino said. "They can't get me on a drug conviction because they have nothing on me, but they destroy my life in the meantime."

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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