Crashed plane owned by Venezuelan, operated by tiny Bolivian airline

Girish Gupta, Alexandra Ulmer and Daniel Ramos
Reuters | Dec. 1, 2016 | Caracas, Venezuela

The plane that crashed in Colombia killing 71 people was owned by a Venezuelan businessman and one-time leftist politician and run by a tiny Bolivian company specializing in transporting soccer teams.

The aircraft, LAMIA Bolivia's only operational one, hit a mountain on Monday and wiped out Brazil's Chapecoense soccer team en route to the Copa Sudamericana final, shocking soccer-lovers and professional players and clubs around the world.

Just a few weeks ago, the 12-employee charter airline flew Argentina's national team to Brazil. Also this year, it flew Venezuela's squad to Colombia, the company said.

"We were working very hard to establish ourselves but unfortunately this tragedy hit us," the manager of LAMIA Bolivia, retired air force general Gustavo Vargas, said in an interview.

"We've done many flights... The plane was completely operable, within normal parameters and with proper inspections."

Six survived the crash, including three players in the soccer squad from the small city of Chapeco in southern Brazil. Two Bolivian crew members and a Brazilian journalist also survived.

According to the co-pilot of another plane in the area, however, the LAMIA pilot had radioed he was running out of fuel and needed to make an emergency landing.

LAMIA Bolivia flew the up-and-coming Chapecoense team from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on the only one of its three planes that was functioning, a BAe 146 made by BAE Systems Plc and owned by Venezuelan businessman and former politician Ricardo Albacete. The team had taken a commercial flight from Brazil to Santa Cruz to make the charter connection.

Albacete founded an airline called LAMIA in Venezuela around 2010, company documents show, but his company was never granted a license to fly, according to Venezuela's Civil Aviation authority. INAC did not elaborate on why LAMIA was not granted a license.

Albacete later rented out three planes to LAMIA Bolivia, a separate corporate entity. Bolivian aviation authority head Cesar Varela told reporters that the crashed plane had been given its certification in January 2016 and that the airline had been in operation for around a year.

The Bolivian company is owned by Miguel Quiroga, who was piloting the crashed plane and died, and Marco Rocha, a former captain in the Armed Forces, according to the company.

Reuters sent emails and a LinkedIn message to Albacete but received no responses. A call to a number believed to belong to Albacete was cut short after a Reuters reporter introduced herself.

A Spanish media site, El Confidencial, quoted him as being "very affected" by the crash.

In a 2011 interview in Venezuela, Albacete explained that LAMIA in Venezuela was founded at the "initiative of" former Merida state governor Marcos Diaz, a Socialist Party politician once close to the late president Hugo Chavez.

Albacete has owned or operated a bookstore, an energy firm and an education company, according to corporate records.

He was also a back-up senator for small left-wing party called "La Causa R" at the end of the 1990s, one of the party's leaders, Andres Velasquez, told Reuters.

Reporting by Girish Gupta, Corina Pons and Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Daniel Ramos in La Paz, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Angus Berwick in Madrid, Rosalba O'Brien in Santiago, and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Grant McCool.