Cynthia Hawkins, a former assistant U.S. attorney who handled the case, said it began with the arrest of Robert Castoro, who was at the time considered one of the most prolific smugglers of marijuana and cocaine into Florida from direct ties to Colombian drug cartels. Castoro was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison, but he began cooperating with authorities and had his sentence reduced to 10 years, Hawkins said.
Esquino said he only pleaded to the money charge to avoid a much lengthier sentence in the narcotics case. He said he came under scrutiny because he sold a plane to Castoro for about $220,000 that he later learned was used to smuggle drugs.
As the years dragged on, the DEA kept dogging Esquino. He said a DEA agent called him on his mobile phone in Mexico in September offering a deal.
"You tell me what cartels you work with and I'll stop seizing your airplanes," Esquino said the agent told him. "I said, 'You're wasting your time.'"
Esquino, a Mexican citizen, was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2004 to committing fraud involving aircraft he purchased in Mexico, then falsified the planes' log books and re-sold them in the United States. He now denies that charge as well, and has since been deported.
This year, the government seized two Starwood planes in Tucson and Texas: a Gulfstream jet and a Hawker 700 worth a combined $2.5 million.
The DEA also has subpoenaed all of Starwood's records dating back to 2007, including its relationship former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank-Rhon, a gambling mogul and member of one of Mexico's most powerful families. Law enforcement officials have long suspected Hank-Rhon is tied to organized crime but no allegations have been proven. He has consistently denied any criminal involvement.
Esquino said Hank-Rhon's involvement with his company was only through renting planes.
"The DEA has destroyed my business, they have destroyed my reputation. That's how they win," Esquino said. "They can't get me on a drug conviction because they have nothing on me, but they destroy my life in the meantime."
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.