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Plans for Cargo Service Turn Into Fly-by-Night Operation

Aviation: American's dream of starting an airline is skyjacked by a Ukrainian-Panamanian joint venture now under investigation.

February 20, 1996|CRAIG PYES and WILLIAM C. REMPEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PANAMA CITY — The Ukrainian-built Antonov cargo plane had arrived here only two days earlier when Ralph Van Sky, an American businessman who had brokered the deal in Kiev, was called to the Riande Continental Hotel to quell a disturbance. It was August 1992.

A crew of ex-Soviet military pilots who had come along to operate the plane--and two more on order like it--were drunk and brawling in the street. When Van Sky reached the scene, he said, he found the aviators raving about their flying prowess and hatching plans to make a lot of money hauling tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico aboard their AN-32B.

"They bragged how they could fly airplanes so low, so fast--and that they had equipment to evade radar," the American recalled. "They were talking crazy."

For Van Sky, the drunken scene marked the beginning of the end for his grand plan to build a giant air cargo complex using former Soviet planes to serve North and South America at an abandoned U.S. air base outside this city. That night, he would reflect later, his dream was hijacked.

The three planes were ultimately operated in a joint venture with Ukrainian investors and a company owned by Panamanian government officials responsible for regulating civil aviation here. That operation is now the subject of a Ukraine Security Service investigation into alleged drug smuggling and money laundering between Panama and Colombia involving Ukrainian flight crews.

U.S. authorities were also concerned about a pattern of cozy relations between Panamanian officials and known and suspected drug traffickers.

One operation they suspected was the Panamanian airline Aerovias Las Americas, which regularly flew AN-32Bs on night flights between Panama and Cali, Colombia. The flights often violated national aviation laws because the operators failed to file proper flight plans, according to U.S. officials and people close to the company.

And Van Sky said that some of the Ukrainian pilots who flew for Aerovias said they planned to fly drugs to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The planes were later observed making practice night airdrops with flares to test the crew's ability to deliver narcotics without landing, a U.S. law enforcement official said.

The involvement of prominent Panamanian officials in the Antonov operations fits what a U.S. Defense Department official said was a continuing pattern of "collusion and corruption" in Panama's civil aviation administration that allowed money and drugs to flow freely through airports despite U.S. protests and warnings to the government of then-President Guillermo Endara during his 1989-94 term.

With these operations occurring barely three years after the U.S. military invasion to remove Gen. Manuel A. Noriega for his links to drug traffickers, the United States was reluctant to force the issue and risk embarrassing the Endara government, according to a number of U.S. officials who agreed to discuss Panama on condition that they would not be identified.

"We got Endara in and we didn't want to burn him," said one U.S. law enforcement source who monitored Panamanian drug smuggling operations.

Among the original shareholders of Aerovias Las Americas were Germinal "Cholin" Sarasqueta, then in charge of airport operations for the civil air authority, and Eliseo Alvarez, a powerful senator with legislative responsibility for aviation.

According to Panamanian records, civil air authority Director Zosimo Guardia immediately granted important international air routes to the fledgling company and allowed it to operate without paying rent on its airport facilities.

Victor Kudimenko, manager of the Ukrainian side of the venture, told The Times that Guardia was a secret shareholder in Aerovias and that the partners regularly conducted company business in Guardia's private offices, one at his law firm and another at the civil air authority building.

Guardia denied any interest in the air cargo company, but he acknowledged that one of his brothers had received consulting fees from Aerovias. "I don't remember making any special favors to these gentlemen," he said in a telephone interview. He said he tried to help the company, but only within the proper limits of his official powers.

Aides of current President Ernesto Perez Balladares told The Times that they are investigating allegations of corruption and the possible hidden ownership of Aerovias by former civil air authority officials.

Kudimenko said aid from officials of Panama was critical.

"Their assistance was, of course, very essential--to attain routes and all the proper permissions; that was their contribution to the [partnership]," the Ukrainian businessman said. "They did not invest cash. Zosimo [Guardia] did not put up a single nickel. He received his shares in exchange for his official contributions."

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