Drug-smuggling sting at airport captures 58

Investigation targets American Airlines operation in Miami

August 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI -- The smugglers moved with ease through Miami International Airport and made their way onto American Airlines planes parked at the gates, stashing heroin in coffee containers in the planes' galleys and hiding cocaine and marijuana in suitcases in the baggage holds, a federal indictment filed yesterday charged.

Once, they agreed to stash three hand grenades in carry-on baggage.

As they went about their illegal business, in plain sight of passengers and airport security officers, federal investigators said, the smugglers did not worry about being caught by the airline.

They were the airline.

The sting operation by federal agents posing as smugglers exposed security lapses by both the airline and the airport.

In its culmination yesterday, agents arrested more than 50 American Airlines baggage handlers and food contract workers, charging them in multiple indictments with conspiracy, importation and distribution of drugs, and arms trafficking.

The smuggling operation, which came to light two years ago when an American Airlines pilot was accidentally served a mixture of coffee and heroin from a smuggled parcel and complained that it "tasted weird," was more than a drug crime,said investigators.

It put passengers at risk, said Ed Halley, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Drugs, the investigation showed, were hidden in overhead compartments, the food carts the flight attendants use, wall panels, bathrooms, galleys, cargo holds and -- more ominously -- inside the wheel bays on American planes, said Halley.

"This compresses against cables and wiring," he said. "If cocaine shifts and breaks a wire, you're in big trouble."

And, if the pilots had been poisoned by the heroin in the coffee, "Who flies the plane?"

In a pre-dawn raid at the airport and at the homes of dozens of American Airlines ramp workers, baggage handlers and contract workers, federal agents arrested 58 people, including two agents with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a Customs inspector and an employee of the Broward County Sheriff's Department, who moonlighted as a baggage handler.

By noon, some 50 people had been indicted on narcotics and weapons charges in a two-pronged operation that targeted employees of LSG/Sky Chefs, a food service contractor owned by Lufthansa Airlines.

"We were convinced we could basically get anything on the planes," said U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott, whose office led the sting operation. The baggage handlers and food service workers apparently had no difficulty in finding and removing the hidden drugs, under the noses of other employees and airport security.

From Miami, the drugs were sent to Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Cleveland, the Associated Press reported.

A spokeswoman for the DEA in Washington said there were no arrests in the Baltimore area.

The accused smugglers went to work on their off days, in uniform, to find the hidden drugs and re-ship them, and their presence was rarely questioned, investigators said.

"These people make $17, $18, $19 an hour with their regular jobs and they still weren't satisfied," said Halley. "They were extremely confident individuals. It was no big deal at all for them. We obviously were not their only clients. They said, `If you've got the money, we'll get it through.' "

When the American employees carried the drugs, he said, "They used their American Airlines IDs, got past the ticket counter and weren't asked any questions."

The airline, in a prepared statement, said that "while we are disturbed that a small group of employees was part of this smuggling ring, their activities have been under federal government and company surveillance for quite some time. We will continue our efforts with law enforcement officials to stem the flow of illegal drugs."

Investigators said it was not a case of a few rogue employees.

"What they had was a very elaborate scheme for aiding in the distribution of narcotics and weapons," said Halley. "For a price, they would bypass security and deliver anything that was paid for to a person who was paying for it."

Rather than regarding the arrests as a sign to American Airlines that it needs to be be more vigilant, a company spokesman, Chris Chiames, said the airline viewed it as confirmation that it was doing a good job.

"We've got numerous programs and surveillance programs in place regarding people who have access to airport facilities," said Chiames. "We view these kind of incidents as proof that the programs work."

No American managers or pilots were arrested in Miami. But eight other people, including seven American employees, were arrested in eastern New York state in a related case, and 10 Colombians were arrested over the weekend in Cali, Colombia, on drug charges that included allegations that they used American Airlines flights to smuggle more than a half-ton of heroin and cocaine to Miami over the past two years.

Halley said undercover agents had also paid to have guns and military explosives -- fake -- smuggled on board by employees.

"We approached them during one transaction and asked them to carry three hand grenades and a loaded pistol, and they had absolutely no problem with it," he said.

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