How to track & trace Narco planes

A visual open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigation and training post on how to track narco planes with open-source intelligence sources (by BH and MB)

The entrance to Hacienda Napoles (2014), the ranch of drug dealer Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug kingpin and narcoterrorist who was the founder and sole leader of the Medellín Cartel. He was one of the godfathers of narco plane trafficking which started for him in the mid-70s. He later bought a whole range of bigger airplanes which allegedly also included a Learjet. Atop the entrance gate, a replica of the Piper PA-18 Super Cub airplane with the tail number HK-617-P.

The Boeing 747 myth

Robert Walter Carlson was sentenced after he flew a private twin-engine jet to Lexington (Blue Grass Airfield, a small airport with similar planes Carlson flew, image Google Earth) from Van Nuys, California. Federal police expected the plane’s arrival and busted Carlson with the drugs.

El Chapo’s planes: What can we learn from history

Testimony, Credit: MB
Credit: MB
Credit: MB
The Commander airplane was sold by a Michigan company in 2014 for $940,000. Credit: DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY

An increase in narco-plane crashes

2020

Twitter link:
Double-engine jet

XB-RCM and XB-NRX

Criminal investigators and journalist showed interest in the case (like OCCRP)
Precise circumstances remain unclear but local media reported the presence of a military helicopter in the area that ‘supposedly fired at the jet’.
Left: 2016 flight record which could be another drug delivery (we don't know); Right: the FAA registration, in Denver by ARA Aviation Inc
Location: Felipe Carrillo Puerto-Mérida highway, the second video from Facebook here (rough coordinates 19.6850180970792, -88.63877364695003)
July 2 crash: “Sedena Calcinated Plane locates in the Clandestine Runway of Mapastepec (another search we don't have time for). It was part of the El Señor de los Cielos series as a location. In a Jet Gulfstream II aircraft, with the Mexican flag, registration XB-NRX, it had an operations base at Pachuca airport in Hidalgo”, writes Ronay Gonzalez ruiz @ronaymx on Twitter
Social media post
Left, the image with half of the registration number missing. Right our wildcard search for the rest of the letters. The crashed BA plane killed all four occupants (two crew members and two passengers) in the small plane when allegedly trying to land the bird on a clandestine airstrip near Alta Verapaz in Guatemala.
Flightpath as reported by the military and leaked reports on social media
Link of video (right), Left: satellite images from the day of the crash what seem to be in a cornfield (image from September 23, 2020, courtesy of Planet Labs)
FlightAware records on N305LR and the YouTube video that shows the incident in detail.
Right: the plane still ablaze after being incinerated by the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB).

PNG — Papua New Guinea

Source: Australian Federal police
Left: the Lea Lea LNG processing plant; Right: the makeshift runway (FB)
Left: a misleading tail sign; Right: Open-source flight records from hours before the crash — it crashed at 12:46 LT, July 26
Flightradar 24 records that we can download and analyze
Search for the owner on PNG’s IPA

Moving on: Owners and registration numbers

Online research that shows a viable connection between the registered plane and owner
How to locate the scene: Draw circles or many lines (reg: 14 km from El Chal)

Are there patterns traffickers follow?

How easy is it to purchase a plane that could be used for drug trafficking?

On offer: a turbine plane on a second-hand plane trading site

Routes

Video of a police car crashing into the wing of a narco plane to avoid it to take off in Brazil (via @fabiomb)

Clandestine landings: A study of airstrips

AirFacts discuses the issue of airstrips in 2019
In Sinaloa state, Mexico: Two possible clandestine airstrips: (left pic’s location, right, location, Google Earth)
Los Andes runway in Machiques, December 2020 (courtesy of Planet Labs)
Analyzing routes and where airstrips could lie (courtesy of Real Instituto Elcano). Right: It’s recommended to keep an eye on hobbyist plane spotting platformsor ABSB-Exchange — suspicious if planes suddenly appear and subsequently disappear again

WHERE?

NASA’s FIRMS platform may aid in locating where cartels burn new landing strips into the ground
The building of a narco plane runway (Timeline GIF from 11/11/2020 to 14/12/2020, courtesy Planet Labs)
Location coordinates (Dec 10, 2020, courtesy of Planet Labs)
Only about 13.7km off east to the Mexican border, two clandestine landing strips, via Planet Labs, December 10, 2020
One way to scope out potential future narco plane landings/crashes: Draw a circle and mark locations suitable for landings
Offering ideal conditions: Highway 307 between Bacalar and Pedro Antonio Santos,
Left: Google Earth, right: updated Planet Scope images from Nov 2020

Conclusion

Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice