Smuggling suspects ‘connected to crime underworld’

| 11/06/2019
Cayman News Service

Rear entrance of the courthouse in George Town

(CNS): Prosecutors have alleged that two Venezuelan nationals charged with smuggling US$135,000 in cash, which was found hidden in a private plane at Owen Roberts International Airport last week, have direct “connections to the criminal underworld”. Crown counsel Garcia Kelly told the Summary Court Tuesday that the plane’s captain, pilot Juan Carlos Gonzales Infante, and co-pilot, Pedro Jose Benavidez Natera, were involved in a suspected organised crime ring across the Caribbean and the United States, as he argued for the men to be remanded in custody until trial.

The two men were charged on Friday, after four people were arrested on Thursday as part of an ongoing investigation into the cash found hidden under electrical paneling in the floor of the aircraft, as well as the transfer of some US$6 million worth of gold through the Cayman Islands to Switzerland over the last two weeks of May.

The court heard that Natera has a previous conviction for money laundering and that Infante is also wanted in the United States on other conspiracy charges relating to what Kelly described as the criminal underworld involving the smuggling of cash, drugs and gold.

Kelly said the men arrived in Cayman on 30 May on the small private plane from Venezuela with a consignment of some $4 million worth of gold, which was declared to customs and then sold here through a broker to a buyer in Switzerland before it was packaged and flown out of Cayman via British Airways.

However, at some point local law enforcement agencies, including the RCIPS Financial Crimes Unit and the Customs and Border Control Agency, had cause to begin an investigation into the arrival of the gold, as well as a previously declared consignment of $2 million that had arrived and been transferred through Cayman, also destined for Switzerland, on 16 May.

The plane was seized as a result of these suspicions and both the pilots and two other men on board were interviewed as witnesses. No one was arrested until the cash was found several days later under the floor of the aircraft during a search involving the K-9 Unit.

Two other men from Venezuela, who were also on board as passengers, were arrested, but the court heard that they have been placed on police bail as the probe continues into the smuggling of the cash and the two gold consignments.

Both Infante and Natera were represented by defence attorney Prathna Bodden, who said that her clients knew nothing about the cash and had cooperated with the police all along, despite being told different things by different officers at different times, in what she said was a messy investigation.

She asked for bail because the men were able to offer a bond and had family that could support them until a trial. Given that one judge had already criticised the confusion surrounding the case, which Bodden said “was actually worse than chaotic”, they had no confidence that a trial would happen anytime soon.

She also said that there was no evidence that the US indictment had anything to do with her client as his name is extremely common. Bodden argued that the gold consignments were all declared to customs and conducted legally and transferred out of Cayman long before the men were charged regarding the cash.

She said the money was not theirs and was hidden in a part of the plane that they could not have been expected to find, despite their responsibilities for the plane’s contents as its pilots.

But given the flight risk, their obvious means and access to privilege transport (as the men were heading to Jamaica to pick up another private plane to go on to Venezuela when they were arrested), their previous history and the strength of the crown’s case over the cash, the men were remanded.

Magistrate Valdis Foldats said that they were responsible for the plane and its contents and there was a risk they may not appear for trial, compounded in Infante’s case by the charges against him in the US. But the magistrate noted that they could appeal his decision to the Grand Court.

He said he would ensure that the case was moved quickly and set a case management hearing for 20 June and a provisional trial date for 17 July, as he remanded them in custody. Bodden confirmed her intention to appeal the bail refusal.

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Category: Courts, Crime

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