A judge in Florida has found probable cause for forfeiture proceedings involving four aircraft linked to influential El Salvador businessman José Enrique Rais following an initial investigation by local law enforcement and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The forfeiture petition was filed April 21 in the civil court of Florida's 19th Circuit on behalf of Martin County Sheriff William Snyder. It alleges that Rais, a Salvadoran citizen, used "dummy" corporations and "straw" owners to improperly maintain US registrations for the aircraft. K9 drug dogs also alerted to three of the aircraft, the petition said.
"The court concludes that sufficient probable cause exists to believe that the property ... was used in violation of the Florida Contraband Act," Judge Barbara Bronis ruled on April 25. The case names Rais individually and doing business as Aviators II, LLC; the Rais Group International NC, LLC; and Citation 501RL NC, LLC.
Judge Bronis' ruling says Rais has 20 days to plead his case or lose the four aircraft for good. In addition to being illegally registered, the sheriff's petition says investigators became suspicious about the planes' movements and configurations, as well as the movements and activities of Rais' flight crew and mechanic.
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Drug sniffing dogs of the county's K9 unit alerted to three of the planes, the sheriff's petition says. It added that an aging Cessna belonging to Rais' fleet bears the hallmarks of an airplane used for drug smuggling, including coveted US registration, interior compartments that show signs of tampering, and sophisticated avionics that far outclass its rough exterior. Rais has said he has the planes to start his own airline.
Rais denied any wrong doing through his attorneys in response to queries from InSight Crime and Revista Factum of El Salvador, which simultaneously broke the story on April 26. He repeated the denial in person on April 27 in statements to reporters in El Salvador. The forfeiture case is in civil court and no criminal charges have been filed.
In his statements to reporters, Rais said that the case is part of a plot to "extort" him. He also questioned the sheriff's motives in bringing the case and raised doubts about the number and experience of the sheriff's drug dogs who checked his aircraft.
"Snyder, the sheriff, has to be looked in to. We have hired private investigators. We are now bringing the truth to light," Rais told the reporters. "You will be the first ones to know: there is corruption here, and there is corruption in the United States."
Rais insisted that only one drug dog named "Oscar" had alerted to his planes, saying several times that the dog was "in training."
The sheriff's petition filed with the court clearly says that two separate dogs from their K9 unit, Oscar and "Bingo," alerted to the planes. It says that Oscar did so on at least two occasions, almost a month apart.
The Martin County Sheriff's Office assured InSight Crime that Oscar, a springer spaniel -- shown in the TCPalm's accompanying October 2015 photograph -- is "a trained, fully certified detection dog."
Rais also repeatedly told reporters that the sheriff's investigation, which was supported by the DEA and received information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was intiated after an tip from an anonymous source, insinuating that it was therefore part of the plot against him.
The sheriff's petition clearly says the source of the tip was the Federal Aviation Administration, which honed in on one of Rais' planes due to its flight paths and registration process. Sheriff's detectives began a stake out of the Witham field hangar on about March 7, and seized the hangar and aircraft on March 10, after obtaining a search warrant. Detectives, deputies and federal agents searched and inspected the hangar, aircraft, their paperwork and Rais' US corporations before filing the petition for forfeiture.
Rais also said he had asked a judge in El Salvador to issue an arrest warrant against InSight Crime's editor at large, Héctor Silva Ávalos. The request is related to a lawsuit that Rais previously filed against Silva Ávalos for libel.
Silva Ávalos has written several stories on Rais' relationship with politicians and judicial authorities, including the former El Salvador Attorney General Luis Martínez. He says the lawsuit is an attempt by Rais to intimidate and silence him.
Martínez, while he was attorney general and the Attorney General's Office was dealing with cases related to Rais and his businesses, flew on Rais' aircraft as many as 18 times, records gathered by an ethics tribunal in El Salvador show. Martinez flew on at least one of the airplanes that the Florida county now has in its possession and is investigating for drug trafficking.
In his statements to the press April 27, Rais confirmed that Martínez had flown on his airplanes. He added that Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, presidential advisor José Luis Merino, and former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo had also traveled on his aircraft. "Remember that I am putting together an airline business," Rais said. "That is the reason for all of those airplanes. It simply is not because we are influence trafficking. No."