CIA Linked Plane Makes Brief Trip To Venezuela As American Diplomats Evacuate

A Lockheed L-100-30 cargo aircraft linked to the Central Intelligence Agency appears to have landed in Venezuela’s capital Caracas amid an increasingly severe political and economic crisis that threatens to bring down the regime of President Nicolas Maduro. The aircraft’s arrival follows U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to withdraw all remaining American diplomatic personnel from the country, raising concerns that the United States may be preparing for a military intervention on behalf of Juan Guaido, the President of the country’s National Assembly, who has challenged Maduro’s authority.

Individuals online using flight tracking software first noticed the L-100-30, a civilian variant of the C-130 Hercules, which carries the U.S. civil registration code N3867X, heading out into the Caribbean Sea around 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time. Two and half hours later, the plane began descending toward Caracas. The aircraft had left Venezuela by around 1:20 PM. 

N3867X’s registration is tied to an entity called T3D&H LLC, based Wilmington, Delaware, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). T3D&H is widely understood to be a front for Florida-headquartered Tepper Aviation, which has long-standing ties to the CIA. 

In 1989, media reports said that Tepper had become involved in the Agency’s efforts to support rebels in Angola, commonly referred to by their group’s Portuguese acronym UNITA, as well as taking part in transporting cargo linked to the Iran-Contra scandal. That same year, another one of the company’s L-100s, N9205T, crashed in Angola, killing Bud Petty, the firm’s owner at the time, as well as another American, two West Germans, a British national, and multiple UNITA members. The aircraft was reportedly also carrying a shipment of weapons at the time. 

More recently, media reports have linked Tepper to the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program. FAA records show that T3D&H only officially took ownership of N3867X specifically in 2006, after acquiring it from South Africa’s Safair.

What the plane, which presently flies in an overall light gray scheme with virtually no markings, was doing in Venezuela is unclear. At the time of writing, the Central Intelligence Agency has not yet responded to our queries about the flight. One possibility is that the aircraft could have been supporting the departure of American personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.

“The U.S. will withdraw all remaining personnel from @usembassyve this week,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Tweeted out late on Mar. 11, 2019. “This decision reflects the deteriorating situation in #Venezuela as well as the conclusion that the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy.” 

At 1:30 PM on Mar. 14, 2019, as N3867X headed away from Venezuela, Pompeo Tweeted out again that all American diplomatic staff had left the country. 

There had also been an indication that the U.S. government had hired a Boeing 737 belonging to Kalitta Charters for this purpose. This same plane, with the US registration code N331CK, had retrieved U.S. diplomatic personnel from Moscow in 2018 in the aftermath of the Russian attempt to assassinate former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom with a nerve agent.

The CIA has historically operated from within American diplomatic sites or from facilities relatively close by. Regardless, the Agency could be withdrawing its own staff, or a portion thereof, to coincide with the State Department’s decision. At present, State remains the lead agency responsible for determining the risks to all U.S. government personnel and other nationals in Venezuela, something you can read about in more depth here.

The other possibility is that the CIA could be bringing in additional personnel, equipment, and supplies to bolster its own presence in the country.  A combination of poorly maintained infrastructure and sanctions led to a major nation-wide blackout that resulted in looting, a further erosion of basic services in the country, and numerous deaths. Any American facilities in the country would have their own backup power supplies, but would need fuel to power those generators. 

The CIA could also have determined there was a need for additional security at any sites it is still operating, especially with the departure of State’s personnel. Still, it would be hard for the Agency to continue its activities at all without diplomatic cover. This, combined with the exact timing of the Tepper Aviation flight, much more strongly suggests that the plane’s presence was related to withdrawing CIA personnel and assets, not inserting them.

But whatever N3867X was doing in Venezuela, it trip is certain to turn heads both in that country and elsewhere. On Feb. 7, 2019, Venezuelan authorities claimed they had seized a shipment of weapons and other equipment that had come into the city of Valencia, situated less than 100 miles west of Caracas, on a Boeing 767, with the U.S. civil registration code N881YV, from Miami.

There is no hard evidence that the guns and other items were actually on this aircraft. North Carolina-headquartered 21 Air, which owns the plane, as well as GPS-Air, the company that chartered the aircraft, both subsequently denied being aware of any such cargo on board, oddly phrased statements that have only prompted more speculation about the incident.

It’s worth noting that 21 Air’s chairman, as well as its director of quality control, have ties to a separate firm known as Gemini Air Cargo, according to a report from McClatchy. Like Tepper Aviation, advocacy groups have linked Gemini to the CIA and the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program.

What’s even more curious is that records from online flight trackers show that N881YV only began making regular flights to Valencia in January 2019 and that these activities stopped, at least according to publicly available information, immediately after the purported discovery of the weapons shipment the next month. GPS-Air was the only company chartering the plane to fly to Venezula in this period, according to statements that 21 Air gave to McClatchy

Even more bizarre, 21 Air’s second aircraft, another Boeing 767 with the registration N999YV, appeared on the Dutch island of Curaçao, where the U.S. military also has a forward operating location, on Feb. 21, 2019, reportedly taking on humanitarian aid bound for Venezuela. But there’s no record in multiple flight tracking databases that this plane was ever there, according to Canada-based independent plane and ship watcher Steffan Watkins, who has been researching these flights in depth and keeping close tabs on the general situation. In fact, he’s found that there’s no record of this plane flying anywhere recently.

Of course, none of this is hard evidence of CIA-linked activities aimed at unseating Maduro or otherwise helping Gauido officially assume power in Venezuela. Even before the opposition leader declared himself Interim President and received formal recognition from the United States and numerous countries in South America, Maduro had routinely accused the U.S. government, and the CIA specifically, without offering any proof, of seeking to undermine and overthrow his regime.

Maduro notably blamed the United States, as well as Colombia, for an assassination attempt involving a pair of  explosive laden drones in August 2018. He also said that “high-tech” capabilities that “only the U.S. government has in the world,” a likely reference to reported American cyber warfare tools, were responsible for bringing down the country’s electricity grid. The United States has categorically denied being involved in either the assassination attempt or the blackout.

Since the crisis of leadership between Maduro and Guaido erupted in January 2019, there has also been no shortage of curious aviation activities in Venezuela and elsewhere in the region, as countries conduct shuttle diplomacy and private companies and other interests look to secure their assets and personnel. There have been

numerous reports that Maduro has been trying to sell off large amounts of gold from the country’s national reserves to keep bank rolling his regime amid increasing international pressure, or just simply for his own personal enrichment.

But the activities of 21 Air’s 767s, and now the appearance of the Tepper Aviation L-100-30, do come amid mounting concerns that the United States is moving closer to launching an armed intervention into Venezuela. Though it was not clear initially that this was the case, it has become obvious that, since February 2019, U.S. Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint spy planes have been monitoring at least some portion of Venezuela while flying orbits off the northeastern coast of the country with increasing regularity. At least one U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II has flown in the same area.

The RC-135V/Ws and EP-3Es are both capable signals intelligence platforms capable of detecting and geo-locating various “emitters,” such as radios and radars, and intercepting those transmissions. This allows the aircraft to collect and analyze communications chatter, as well as help build a so-called “electronic order of battle” of enemy air defenses based on the position of radars and other assets. You can read more about the capabilities of these planes in depth here and here.

Pompeo’s comment that the continued presence of American diplomatic personnel was a “constraint” on American policy could indicate that keeping the U.S. Embassy open was seen as adding unnecessary risks to potential military operations. Venezuela security forces might have sought to seize the Embassy compound and take Americans hostages to stymie any intervention. The State Department has now said that it will hold Maduro and security forces loyal to him personally responsible for the safety of any American citizens still in the country.

A satellite image of the US Embassy compound in Caracas., Google Earth

In January 2019, National Security Advisor John Bolton had stoked similar fears about an impending military operation when reporters noticed him carrying a pad of paper with the note “5,000 troops to Colombia.” It remains unclear what this note was referring to at all. 

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Elliott Abrams as U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela has only prompted more speculation. As Assistant Secretary of State, Abrams was directly involved in controversial American activities in Latin America during the 1980s and was also convicted of crimes relating to the Iran-Contra Scandal. President George H.W. Bush later pardoned him. On Mar. 12, 2019, Abrams told reporters that “all options” remained on the table for how the U.S. government might proceed in regards to the crisis in Venezuela.

At the same time, the extent of clear U.S. military activities related to the crisis in Venezuela has been intelligence gathering and the use of Air Force transport planes to deliver humanitarian aid to staging sites in neighboring Colombia. There has been no clear evidence any major American troop build up linked to an actual military intervention.

US military personnel unload humanitarian aid from an Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport aircraft in Cucuta, Colombia in February 2019., USAF

It remains to be seen whether N3867X’s sudden appearance in the country, or the departure of the remaining State Department personnel, is any indicator that American policy might be shifting in a new direction. We will definitely be keeping an eye out for any new developments.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.