In June the unusual story of a plane grounded in Argentina after a covert flight over the country’s airspace with the transponder turned off made headlines worldwide. The US Department of Justice is now seeking to seize the aircraft, which was previously sold by Iran’s Mahan Air to Venezuel’s Emtrasur, and was flying with a mixed Iranian-Venezuelan crew.
The FBI has named two Spanish companies as involved in the affair, Zorex SA and Alcux Air Spain. Zorex SA appears to be a ghost company whose offices at Madrid 2 Stree, in Colmenar Viejo, a small town 40km away from the Spanish capital, ceased to operate last year. Contact numbers and physical addresses on Zorex’s website lead to nowhere. Alcux Air Spain is registered at a building on the outskirts of Barcelona. But these offices, too, are bereft of a telephone number, contact details, or a website. IranWire’s efforts to locate a single representative or employee of the company, or to locate a working number, were fruitless.
The Argentine judge Federico Villena is now investigating these two entities due to past dealings with Emtrasur. Alcux, it appears, paid Emtrasur some US$600,000 to transport cargo from Mexico to Argentina. The date of payment matches the moment the Venezuelan-Iranian plane landed at the Argentine airport. Zorex S.A, is involved through an alleged subsidiary in the United States, having concurrently received US$780,000 via bank transfer from Emtrasur.
Both financial operations set off alarm bells at the FBI, which is conducting an open probe into the plane’s trajectory together with Argentine counterparts. Villena’s working hypothesis is that Zorex’s US subsidiary lent its bank account to the Venezuelans to avoid financial sanctions while it brought as-yet unestablished wares to Argentina. The Venezuelan company Conviasa, which manages Emtrasur, is sanctioned by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Finally, earlier this month, the Argentine investigation identified a man named Juan Manuel Bataller as being an administrator of Alcux. As coincidence would have it he was also a proxy of the other company, Zorex S.A. Bataller was summoned to testify via videolink from Spain before the Argentine courts, and insisted the payments were linked to basic airline administration. Still Bataller, who has been two convictions from Barcelona’s commercial courts and a declaration of insolvency, could not justify the use of Zorex bank accounts by Emtrasur.
Current Status of the Iranian-Venezuelan Plane
The Boeing 747-3B3(M) aircraft belonging officially to Emtrasur, registration number YV3531, is still stranded at the airport in Buenos Aires. At the beginning of August, Argentine justices granted 12 of the 19 crew members permission to leave the country but retained four of the Iranians - among them Gholamreza Ghasemi, a former member of the IRGC - and three Venezuelans.
On August 16, HispanTV, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s Spanish-language channel, and Spanish Russia Today both published articles highlighting disapproving comments by the Argentine ambassador to Venezuela, Oscar Laborde. Laborde said that in his view the aircraft had been “hijacked” and intimated that the Argentine justice was acting solely at Washington’s behest. Russia Today also quoted Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, as having said the plane’s retention was a "propaganda operation" motivated by Tehran’s nuclear policies. HispanTV, describing the plane as “abducted”, further quoted Laborde: “There are many interested parties that want this to be a fight.”
Laborde’s comments were met with widespread criticism including in the Argentine press last week. In an apparent bid to keep things calm, government spokeswoman Gabriela Cerruti described him as “an excellent ambassador who has been fulfilling his task for a very short time”.
But she added: “The plane is Iranian. In fact, it is Venezuelan of Iranian origin, bought from the government of Iran.”