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American Airlines workers arrested in drug sting

From Susan Candiotti

Federal agents take suspects into custody Monday in Miami.
Federal agents take suspects into custody Monday in Miami.

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- At least 14 current and possibly former American Airlines employees at Miami International Airport have been charged with drug conspiracy in a suspected smuggling operation after a four-year investigation, U.S. government sources said.

A Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman said Monday that at least 13 people are in custody.

"It's part of an international drug-smuggling operation," Special Agent Joe Kilmer said.

Federal drug agents picked up the first of the suspects at dawn Monday. Some of the defendants wearing American Airlines mechanic-type uniforms were seen in handcuffs being taken into custody at DEA offices in Miami.

The U.S. attorney's office in Miami released a statement saying 14 people have been charged with drug conspiracy in two indictments. No further details have been released publicly until a news conference later Monday.

In a statement, American Airlines said it assisted in the investigation that led to the arrests.

The carrier noted that a small number of its employees are suspected of wrongdoing and called its anti-drug program "one of the most elaborate anti-drug initiatives in the airline industry." It said it "has been highly successful in working with law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and other countries to deter the illegal trafficking of drugs."

The operation is believed to be similar to a major 1999 sting at the airport. The so-called Operation Ramp Rats involved an undercover case in which 58 ramp workers and other airport employees were indicted in Miami and New York.

The defendants were charged with thwarting security to move drug shipments through the airport.

U.S. law enforcement officials said nearly all were convicted. Most pleaded guilty, officials said.

In the previous case, ramp workers were accused of setting aside pre-identified arriving baggage containing drugs and moving them off the airport premises without being stopped.

A catering service also was used to smuggle heroin -- inside coffee packets in one case.

After the 1999 operation, Miami airport officials and airlines implemented intensified security procedures after acknowledging improvements were needed.

Sources said that some of those new security measures apparently have been breached again.

CNN's Tracy Sabo in Dallas, Texas, and Allison Flexner in Miami contributed to this report.

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