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Chavismo and Corruption? The Dark Past of LAMIA Airlines

By: Sabrina Martín - @SabrinaMartinR - Nov 29, 2016, 4:20 pm
Mystery surrounds
What happened to LAMIA’s USD $170 million budget? Where are the 12 planes that the airline had planned to buy? (Lamia)

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Following the tragic plane crash on Monday, November 28 in which 75 people died, including Chapecoense players, journalists, managers, and coaching staff, serious questions about the LAMIA airline have come to light.

LAMIA (Merida International Airline Company) is a small airline with Venezuelan ownership, founded in the state of Mérida, although it currently operates out of Bolivia.

Lamia grew to become the most in demand charter airline for sports teams in South America.

Atletico Nacional, the Medellin-based team that was going to face the Brazilian Chapeco team in the Copa Sudamericana (South American Cup), had also flown this year with the airline. This November, the Argentine national team also used this same plane to travel from Buenos Aires to Belo Horizonte, and later to San Juan to compete in two matches. Leonel Messi and Javier Mascherano were among the passengers.

According to sports daily Marca, the LAMIA plane could not leave Sao Paulo due to legal impediments, according to the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) of Brazil.

The statement added that the club “was warned of that refusal” and that “the route could only be operated by a Brazilian or Colombian company.” Still, facing this situation, the Chapecoense chose to keep the flight with the Venezuelan company that operates from Bolivia, due to its “expert” reputation for transporting professional soccer teams.

The company was founded in 2009 by the Chavista governor of Mérida at that time, Marcos Díaz Orellana.

The current focus of its commercial activity is operating non-scheduled charter flights from Alberto Carnevali airport in Mérida, Venezuela, and also functions as a “small operator” in Bolivia, from where last night’s downed plane had departed.

While LAMIA has specialized in transporting soccer teams, behind its creation there is a strong political connection with Chavismo and the commercial relations between China and Venezuela. The reality is that LAMIA’s operations in Venezuela have largely been shrouded in mystery.

In 2010 when LAMIA flew its inaugural flight, it was in Mérida state. Then governor Diaz Orellana declared that the aircraft, named “El Merideño,” was the first of a total of twelve units with which it would commence operations thanks to an agreement with the Republic of China. These units were supposedly already assembled and in the certification phase.

“The aircraft are already assembled and are currently in the certification phase; They will arrive in Venezuela by the end of September, and will be evaluated according to regulations, through the National Civil Aeronautics Institute (INAC),” said the governor.

On that occasion Díaz Orellana told regional media that more than USD $5 million had been budgeted for the acquisition of aircraft. “We are talking about an estimated USD $170 million, which will be used for equipment and recruitment,” he said.

As early as 2014 the leader of Trujillanos Camino al Progreso, Humberto Araujo, had noticed alleged irregularities with the airline. That year the supposed twelve units still had not taken flight.

“LAMIA received its first aircraft, an ATR – 72 212A in August 2009. However, given the lack of permission, the aircraft was returned to its lessor, tabling the airline’s initial project” the leader told the regional daily Los Andes.

At that time, Araujo explained that the Chavista governors of Mérida, Nueva Esparta, and Bolívar, Marcos Díaz Orellana, Mata Figuero,a and Francisco Rangel Gómez, respectively, assumed ownership of the company.

“The irony of the case is that none of its planes have been flying passengers in the specified states this whole time,” he said.

The airline supposedly operates out of Alberto Carnevali Airport in Mérida, but in reality it has been more than two years since the airline scheduled flights from this airport; and five years after Lamia was founded, they were still not operating there.

On August 21, 2015, the opposition deputy Williams Davila said that the airport “was for private use of government elites.”

“The airport remained as a private club […] a flying club for high-ranking government bureaucrats, contractors and other elites of the socialist regime, who use it for their private luxury aircraft, for both personal and business travel, all at the expense of the taxpayers” said Davila.

According to reports from international media, the pilot of the downed plane,  also appears to be the owner of the airline. It is highly unusual that the owner of an airline would also be piloting one of its aircraft.

Marca is also confirming this report, also suggesting that the downed plane was the only one of the company’s three that could fly, as the other two aircraft were being repaired at the time.

With all the mystery swirling around LAMIA many questions remain: Where was all that money going? Where were these supposed 12 aircraft that were already assembled and in the stage of certification and were obtained through the China-Venezuela agreement?

Forbes’ Christine Negroni has done research indication that the BAe 146 aircraft, also known as a Avro RJ, was 17 years old and had been acquired by LAMIA along with other aircraft of a similar age.

This aircraft has a flight range of 2,000 miles and the route between Santa Cruz and Medellin was 1,800 miles, on the verge of its operational limit.

As the plane arrived in Medellin, the crew reported electrical problems, according to local media, which reinforces the hypothesis that the aircraft’s demise was caused by a lack of fuel.

Running out of fuel has been the cause of plane crashes in more than a dozen cases, such as the crash of an Avianca Boeing 707 in 1990 in New York.

Sabrina Martín Sabrina Martín

Sabrina Martín is a Venezuelan journalist, commentator, and editor based in Valencia with experience in corporate communication. Follow @SabrinaMartinR.