Ghosn getaway jet’s other job: ferrying Venezuelan gold
Trying to move tons of gold or whisk a dictator to safety? Need to extract a corporate executive from house arrest and spirit him across the world?
The company of choice for Carlos Ghosn’s audacious escape from Japan was a Turkish charter operator whose aircraft have helped with all of that and more.
Two planes operated by a unit of MNG Holding Co., a conglomerate with hotel, finance and transportation services, made the circuitous route from Osaka to Istanbul to Beirut that surreptitiously carried Ghosn to his home country, according to a senior Turkish official.
While details are still emerging, the dramatic exfiltration is drawing attention to the company and the private world of charter flights. The Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro has used aircraft from MNG to ship gold to Istanbul. Reza Zarrab, a gold trader who violated sanctions against Iran, tapped the company to manage his private plane.
Charter jets give customers a cloak of privacy. Planes are often owned by one group yet operated and managed by a specialty company. Still, tail number and registrations can be tracked, partially piercing their secrecy. That’s how MNG’s name has surfaced in the Ghosn drama.
“I’m sure they’re on everyone’s radar screens now,” said Michael Burton, an attorney specializing in international trade law.
MNG Jet says customers can do whatever they want with the aircraft they have chartered, as long as it isn’t illegal. It said, however, that it had filed a criminal complaint over the flights linked to Ghosn over what it said amounted to “the illegal use of its jet charter services.”
“Similarly to a car rental agency, MNG Jet is renting out planes, and does not bear any responsibility for what the passengers do with them,” the company wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “According to the international aviation code, it is not MNG Jet’s role, responsibility and rights to enquire about the reasons behind the travels or to check the content of the luggage transported by the passengers in the planes.”
For its part, Turkey has detained seven people, including four pilots, and is investigating the Ghosn transport.
MNG has a significant cargo unit that does business with clients including UPS and DHL. That unit, MNG Airlines, serves Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Germany, the U.K. and the Middle East. A smaller affiliate, MNG Jet, operates at least a half-dozen aircraft out of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
The MNG unit leased two jets to two clients: one scheduled to fly from Dubai to Osaka and then to Istanbul, and another from Istanbul to Beirut. It added that the leases didn’t appear to be connected and that Ghosn’s name didn’t appear on any flight documentation. MNG didn’t provide the names on the leases.
According to the company, an MNG Jet employee who is under investigation by Turkish authorities “has admitted having falsified the records.” He also “confirmed that he acted in his individual capacity, without the knowledge or the authorization of the management of MNG Jet,” the company said.
When he boarded one of aircraft in Osaka, Ghosn became the latest passenger on a jet that has been tracked meticulously for the last year. It has made numerous trips from Caracas to Istanbul, ferrying gold for a Venezuelan government eager to raise hard currency, according to a person familiar with the matter. Those routes were confirmed by Sweden-based flightradar24.com.
That Bombardier Global Express, tail number TC-TSR, has “VIP seating for 13” and a range of 6,000 miles. Earlier in the spring, it made a trip to Venezuela, but apparently not for gold. It was dispatched from Moscow to Caracas when an April 30 uprising against Maduro prompted talk of a quick escape. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the plan was to ferry Maduro to safety in Cuba but that the Russians persuaded him to stay. (Maduro never left and called Pompeo’s statement “craziness.”)
The company is one corner of a business empire founded by Mehmet Nazif Gunal, a Turkish-born civil engineer. From a construction company he started in the 1970s, Gunal has expanded throughout the Middle East and now employs more than 20,000 people.