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59 Workers Indicted in Drug Sting at Airport

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly 60 American Airlines employees and food service workers were charged Wednesday with smuggling what they thought were drugs and explosives onto planes in a sting operation that federal authorities said revealed alarming security breaches at Miami International Airport.

The two-year undercover operation began when an American Airlines pilot complained about a cup of coffee on the plane that was later found to have been tainted with heroin. “The pilot said, ‘There’s a distinct taste. It’s kind of weak,’ ” said Thomas E. Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

The discovery in April 1997 of 15 pounds of heroin hidden in a jetliner’s galley triggered Operation Ramp Rats, and then Operation Sky Chef, which Scott called the biggest drug smuggling investigation ever conducted against employees of a U.S. airline.

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Although drug smuggling was the focus of the investigation, Scott said officials were shocked by the ease with which airline employees--even on days when they were not scheduled to work--moved in and out of secure areas, including cargo areas and the passenger jets. “The agents and I believed we could put anything we wanted on these planes, including weapons,” said Scott. “It’s an issue here not only of narcotics, but issues of security of the airport and the security of the flying public.”

The U.S. attorney’s office suggested a series of steps to improve security at the nation’s airports, including installing more checkpoints and baggage scanning machines, limiting access to secure areas and issuing identity cards to employees that would document their comings and goings.

The interagency inquiry uncovered an alleged conspiracy involving airline and catering company employees to bring drugs from South America to Miami and move them from Miami to several cities in the Northeast.

Using their uniforms and badges to skirt airport security, the employees often were able to pack what they believed to be cocaine and heroin in secret compartments in food service carts, authorities said. They also carried the contraband onto flights in backpacks and garbage bags, according to investigators.

On two occasions within the last two months, undercover agents arranged with airline baggage handlers and ramp workers to transport three hand grenades, a pistol and ammunition in a carry-on bag. The grenades were disarmed, and neither they nor the firearm actually made the flight from Miami to Philadelphia, according to Scott.

Fifty-nine people were named in multiple indictments resulting from the two stings. Among those charged with conspiracy, importation and distribution of drug and weapon offenses were 30 employees of American Airlines and 13 employees of LSG/Sky Chefs, a food service contractor owned by Lufthansa Airlines.

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Others charged include an official of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector and a Broward County corrections officer.

Most of those indicted were arrested in predawn raids carried out Wednesday at Miami’s airport and the employees’ homes. If convicted, most could face life in prison.

In a related case in New York, eight people, including seven American Airlines employees, were accused of using similar tactics to smuggle suitcases of marijuana from Miami to John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. Since 1996, authorities said, the ring made hundreds of trips between the two cities carrying an estimated 10,000 pounds of marijuana.

In a statement released through its Fort Worth headquarters, American Airlines said it has cooperated with the investigation. “While we are disturbed that a small group of employees were part of this smuggling ring, their activities have been under federal government and company surveillance for quite some time,” the company said.

The company added that the arrests were not expected to affect scheduling or service at the nation’s biggest domestic airline and the biggest carrier to Latin America.

In Arlington, Texas, Bill Slay, a spokesman for LSG/Sky Chefs, said the caterer cooperated with the investigation. “Our employees have access to airplanes,” said Slay. “Unfortunately, this handful of people have taken advantage of the situation and used it to their own enrichment.”

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Scott contradicted the airlines’ assertion that only a “small group” was involved. “This is not a case of one or two rogues,” he said, adding that 38 separate transactions were recorded that involved more than 650 pounds of bogus cocaine.

Scott and other federal officials provided details of a lengthy investigation in which employees of American Airlines and the catering company routinely showed up at work on their days off, passed freely through security check-points and flew to Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore and other cities for free in carrying out drug-delivery assignments.

Scott said that no real drugs or weapons were ever placed aboard planes during the Miami sting operation.

“The significance of the operations is how it demonstrates the problems at MIA, and probably a lot of other airports in security and in the management of airport services,” said John Clark, acting special agent in charge of U.S. Customs in Miami. “These types of . . . conspiracies are really hurting us.”

Over two years, undercover agents in Miami found scores of airline and food service employees willing to conceal and transport many shipments of fake cocaine and other drugs from Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Scott said the conspirators were paid sums ranging from $500 to $3,000 for facilitating drug shipments. The person who agreed to take the grenades and pistol aboard a plane, identified as American Airlines employee Victor A. Montalvo, was paid $7,000 in cash stuffed into a soft drink cup, according to the federal complaint.

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Also seized were $69,000 in cash, a safe, as yet unopened, and five stolen laptop computers.

Patricia Galupo, of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said that at least one of the defendants did show some concern for his actions in agreeing to carry aboard a domestic flight a knapsack containing three M-67 military grenades that he believed to be armed. “He was worried about blowing himself up when he carried it onto the airplane,” she said.

Along with copies of surveillance photos, the U.S. attorney’s office supplied an organizational flow chart of the smuggling ring and a log of “security breaches at MIA” in which defendants moved in and out of secure areas with what they thought were drugs.

“They were never challenged. They were never asked, ‘Why are you here?’ ” he said. “We wanted to document the problems,” said Scott. “Now it’s up to the public and the media to ask questions . . . of the people responsible for security at the airport.”

The arrests follow other serious headaches for the airline over recent months. An American plane suffered a fatal crash in Arkansas that raised safety questions. The company has been sued by the Justice Department for predatory pricing and also has been hit with labor unrest that inconvenienced thousands of passengers.

Tom Cash, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official who is now a security consultant, said the investigation reveals how “ramp rats” and the thousands of other everyday workers who scurry around a major airport are easily overlooked. “I’m not too concerned about the drug issue,” said Cash. “The situation I’m concerned about is, what about the guns? What about terrorists using these airports as targets?”

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The Federal Aviation Administration requires 10-year background checks of all airport employees who work unescorted in secure areas. At Los Angeles International Airport, 33,000 airline and airport employees and contractors wear badges and use codes that permit them 24-hour access to certain areas of the airport. Not all of the badges and codes permit access to the ramp areas, where the employees arrested in Miami worked.

“Employees who are properly badged to work in the area where they are supposed to work are not a problem,” LAX spokeswoman Nancy Castles said. “The problem lies in the fact that there may be people who abuse their badge privileges.”

The discovery of drug shipments aboard commercial airlines is not unprecedented. An American Airlines ramp supervisor was arrested in February on charges of trying to smuggle 205 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. And in July 1997, six American Airlines mechanics were charged with smuggling half a ton of cocaine and heroin into the country by stashing it behind cabin walls and in cockpit electronics.

Those arrests came a day after 12 Delta Air Lines employees in Puerto Rico were indicted for helping to smuggle nearly $1 billion worth of cocaine for a Colombian cartel.

Asked if security was a problem at other major U.S. airports, Scott answered by saying the federal investigation continues.

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Researcher Massie Ritsch in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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