A Colombian civilian pilot who went missing in Mexico City may have been shot down by Venezuelan armed forces in a well-known drug-smuggling air corridor.
None of the countries potentially involved in the case of 38-year-old Mario Nocove — Colombia, Mexico, or Venezuela — has made any statement on the matter or would confirm any details after repeated requests from VICE News.
Nocove last spoke with loved ones in Colombia on May 26. That day, the pilot told his eight-year-old daughter that he was in Mexico for a job and would be flying a plane that was located about three hours outside of Mexico City, his ex-wife told VICE News.
"[He told us] that he was in Mexico, and would be back in the first days of June," said the woman when reached in Bogotá last week.
The case drew public attention after Nocove's father contacted the Mexican newspaper El Universal. The paper then linked a series of apparently unrelated incidents that may lead to a scenario explaining his fate.
On May 25, a Beechcraft King Air plane was reportedly stolen in the state of Puebla, Mexico. The next day, Nocove contacted his family for the last time, telling them he was in a hotel in Mexico City and about to go on a job. On May 28, the Venezuelan air force reported that they shot down a King Air 300 near the city of Bruzual, close to the border with Colombia in Apure state.
According to Nocove's family, a stranger called his father, Gonzalo Nocove, and told him that the pilot's plane had crashed in Venezuela. "Don Gonzalo, this is tough — Mario is dead," the man reportedly said. When Gonzalo Nocove insisted for help in locating his son, the stranger told him to start his search in Bruzual.
Nocove's ex-wife spoke to VICE News about his disappearance, explaining that the missing man has been a pilot for 11 years.
"He flew a King 200 for Civil Aeronautics," she said, referring to Colombia's civilian aviation agency, adding: "He could fly other planes."
The King Air was reportedly stolen from an anonymous businessman who stored it at an airstrip in Atlixco, Puebla, about 100 miles southeast of Mexico City — or about a three-hour drive from the center of the capital.
The aircraft had originally been acquired at a Mexican government auction a few months earlier, and was delivered to its new owner just weeks before it was stolen, according to El Universal. The owner claimed that "kidnappers" had called and demanded the plane as ransom for his eldest son, threatening to murder the son if he did not comply.
Believing the kidnapping story, according to the newspaper's account, the businessman authorized the control tower to allow the aircraft to take off from the Atlixco airstrip. The owner soon realized that his son had not been in danger, but the plane was gone. According to El Universal, he reported the aircraft's theft two days later, on May 27.
On May 28, two days after Nocove's last contact with his family, the chief of the Venezuela's armed forces (FANB) announced that a plane had been intercepted near the Colombian border.
"Once again, our FANB enforces our sovereignty. Demobilized King 300 aircraft, southeast of Bruzual, Apure," Gen. Vladimir Padrino posted on Twitter, along with a picture of a double-engine aircraft lying ruined in a field.
Cocaine traffickers use clandestine airstrips to move drugs from Colombia into Venezuela. In 2012, the Venezuelan government destroyed at least 36 such landing spots in Apure state, according a March 2013 report published by the US State Department.
Under one scenario, Nocove could have been hired by traffickers to either carry cash or contraband to Venezuela, or pick up drugs in a region that a UN study on organized crime identifies as a key airspace corridor for cocaine heading north to Central America, and then onwards to Mexico and the US.
At least three planes originating from Mexico and suspected of shuttling drugs have been shot down over Venezuela in the last nine months. Before the King Air 300 was brought down in May, another small twin-engine plane with Mexican registration and suspected of being involved in organized crime was shot down in Apure on November 4, 2013, according to Venezuelan statements.
A third Mexican plane was brought down on June 6, General Padrino confirmed.
The governor of the Mexican state of Hidalgo, which borders Puebla, later said that the plane shot down in June originated in his state and had also been stolen.
Shooting down suspected drug planes is a stated policy of Venezuela's government. In October, President Nicolás Maduro enacted a law aiming for the "control and integral protection of airspace," allowing the Venezuelan air force to shoot down planes that are suspected of being involved in trafficking.
The Venezuelan military has never formally acknowledged the casualties caused by bringing down such planes nor released information on any confiscated goods.
After Venezuela confirmed it had shot down the plane in November, the Mexican government requested formal clarification on the matter. No statements from either country on the incident have been released since.
When VICE News contacted relevant agencies in Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia for comment on Nocove's case, authorities either said they had no information or did not return multiple messages.
Even security analysts seemed at a loss. Alejandro Hope, a drug and crime expert in Mexico City, told VICE News that we might as well interview "any random person on the street" in search of answers on what happened to Nocove.
"I don't understand why [cartels] would steal planes, if they could rent them," Hope said.