U.S. Seizes $400 Million Venezuelan Airliner: Western Commandeering of Adversary Assets Increasingly Widespread

The United States government has taken control of a Boeing 747 airliner belonging to the Venezuelan cargo airline Emtrasur, with the Department of Justice reporting that the aircraft was being “prepared for disposition” without further elaborating on its future fate. The airliner was impounded by Argentina, a leading American ally in Latin America, with its transponders having subsequently been turned off several times en route to the U.S. to conceal the operation. The Venezuelan government has described the seizure as “blatant theft” of the aircraft, which is valued at over $400 million, pledging to take “all actions to restore justice and achieve the restitution of the aircraft to its legitimate owner.” Venezuelan Transport Minister Ramon Araguayan elaborated regarding the effort to seize the aircraft: “To circumvent the sovereignty of the countries they flew over, they omitted data from the plane in the flight plan, gave it the connotation of a military state flight (TYSON23), intermittently turned off the transponder, and took off from Argentina at midnight, to hide in darkness as criminals when they perpetrate a crime.” 

The seizure of the Venezuelan airliner follows the imposition of stringent economic sanctions on the country by states across the Western world, which escalated considerably in the late 2010s as Caracas faced economic crisis. U.S. officials claimed that as the aircraft was previously owned by the Iranian airline Mahan Air, which Washington alleges has provided services for the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the seizure was justified. The corps is a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen thus claimed that the seizure was part of an effort to “deny hostile state actors the means to engage in malign activities that threaten our national security.” The seizure of civil airliners by Western states is far from unprecedented, with a notable recent example being the seizure of a Russian owned An-124 heavyweight cargo aircraft by Canadian authorities in June 2023, which had been chartered by the Canadian government and landed in Toronto on February 27, 2022 carrying rapid tests for Covid-19 from China. It was subsequently never allowed to return. 

The United States has previously extensively targeted international shipping, often in international waters, to seize assets that belong to its adversaries. A notable example was the targeting of Iranian oil tankers under the Donald Trump administration, the oil from which was taken by the United States Navy and subsequently sold with no compensation paid to Iran. Another was the seizure of the North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest by the U.S. Navy which was subsequently sold and the funds appropriated by the United States. In 2020 the U.S. Naval Institute proposed hiring mercenary privateers to target Chinese civilian shipping in a similar way should relations further worsen. Other examples of such Western actions have most often targeted North Korean and Iranian shipping. Indeed, specifically in response to this threat the Russian Navy has launched maritime exercises simulating the defence of oil tankers from potential Western efforts to seize them at sea. These began in April 2022, and followed the seizure of a Russian oil tanker in the English Channel in February that year.