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The Sinaloa Cartel Has More Planes Than Mexico's Biggest Airline

The drug trafficking organization has hundreds of planes, from Cessnas to Boeing 727s, and competes for top pilots.
Cessna 525 CitationJet. Photo: Adrian Pingstone/Wikimedia Commons

This story originally ran on War Is Boring.

Jorge Gustavo Arevalo-Kessler's career flying planes for the Sinaloa Cartel's private airline ended with an arrest in Mexico City and an admission of guilt before a US federal judge.

German by birth, Arevalo-Kessler became a Mexican citizen and rose to the rank of captain in the Mexican air force, where he worked as an instructor and trained hundreds of pilots. His post-military career was quite different.


He received an offer to fly for Emirates Airlines and could have retired with a pension. Instead, he went to work for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and flew bundles of cash and cocaine to and from Venezuela, Panama, and Mexico.

"He has had so many privileges given to him because of his education and his ability to fly the planes," US District Judge Gray Miller said during Arevalo-Kessler's sentencing. "I mean, he's flown fighter pilot—or piloted fighter planes. He's flown commercial jets, small and large. Unfortunately, like he said, he was blinded by the greed and got himself in the situation that he got himself into."

Arevalo-Kessler received 11 years in federal prison on charges of conspiring to engage in money laundering. He only had a few words in response, according to a transcript of the 2011 trial which was unsealed last year.

The cartel's fleet is even comparable to some major international airlines

"And all these black days, I have thinking I'm—I'm praying and I just asking the Lord to get—be near and speak with truth," Arevalo-Kessler said. "And the only thing I want to let you know, Your Honor, is that I have time to think about what I did. What I did—I did was wrong."

Arevalo-Kessler was an important pilot in the Sinaloa Cartel's air operations, which by sheer number of planes rival those of major airlines. Its fleet size is likely larger than Mexico's largest commercial airliner Aeromexico.


The cartel's fleet is even comparable to some major international airlines, although most of the cartel's aircraft are smaller, befitting their role of traveling to and from remote, crude landing strips.

That's according to a new investigation by the Mexican newspaper El Universal, which obtained data on planes seized by the Mexican security forces between 2006 and 2015. The numbers are surprising even for the Sinaloa Cartel, the world's wealthiest drug-trafficking organization.

Mexico has seized 599 airplanes and helicopters linked to the Sinaloa Cartel alone, according to the newspaper. That's nearly five times the size of Aeromexico's fleet, although again, most of the Sinaloa Cartel's aircraft are on the smaller size—Cessnas (the most popular), Gulfsteams, and Pipers, among others.

A complicated nexus of shell companies, private airlines, and "training schools" conceals their true purpose.

Considering this number is only for aircraft seized, not active, the real total is likely higher—and we can expect the cartel to replace its losses after seizures. Not all of the cartel planes are on the smaller side. Arevelo-Kessler admitted to Mexican authorities after his arrest that he flew a Boeing 727 for the cartel.

According to El Universal, if the Sinaloa Cartel's fleet was legal, "the cartel would also compete as the most lucrative airport company in the country, operating 4,771 clandestine airstrips between 500 meters and one kilometer long, nestled in the heart of the mountains in northern states."

The Sinaloa Cartel is an international organization, but it is most heavily invested in northwestern Mexico centered around the state of Sinaloa—where the cartel takes its name. According to the newspaper, the organization's airstrips are heavily concentrated in Sinaloa, with the greatest number in Baja California opposite the Californian border.

But what Arevalo-Kessler's case shows is that the the Sinaloa Cartel does not have to be legal to compete with the world's airlines. A job offer from Emirates—one of the world's best—and career in the Mexican air force gave him rare opportunities to work in aviation. But he went to work for El Chapo.

Illegal or not, the cartel has proven it's capable of recruiting top talent.