Airline workers indicted on drug charges
August 25, 1999
From Correspondent Susan Candiotti
MIAMI (CNN) -- Fifty-five American Airlines ramp agents and food service contract employees face federal drug smuggling conspiracy charges as a result of an undercover sting operation that used fake cocaine, sources tell CNN.
The suspects include 42 American Airlines employees and 13 Sky Chefs food service workers charged by the U.S. Customs Service with smuggling what they thought to be drugs.
Three federal inspectors -- two from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and one from the Department of Agriculture -- also face charges, the sources said.
Three-hundred kilos of phony cocaine was allegedly used and more than $300,000 paid to suspects as part of the estimated $1 million sting.
"We didn't run out of defendants," said one source. "We ran out of money."
Arrests in New York, Florida
The roundup of suspects began in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday with arrests, in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas and in New York, timed to coincide with the unsealing of a grand jury indictment.
The raids are being conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs Service, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Miami-Dade police department.
Sources say the arrests stem from a nearly 2 1/2-year-old undercover sting carried out by the DEA and the Customs Service.
Law enforcement sources tell CNN the ramp agents are accused of unloading what they thought was cocaine from American Airlines flights arriving from Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia.
The cocaine was fake, provided by the DEA, sources say.
Suspects were couriers
The American Airlines workers are charged with delivering the phony cocaine to pre-arranged contacts working undercover for law enforcement agencies.
Suspects would then act as couriers, and sometimes arrange to have off-duty co-workers carry the dummy cocaine on domestic American Airlines flights to several U.S. cities including New York, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Sources say the packages weighed 5-15 kilos each and couriers allegedly earned up to $3,000 per trip.
Sources: Widespread corruption
Authorities speaking on the condition of anonymity tell CNN the undercover operation illustrates widespread corruption among American Airlines ramp employees.
"Two-thirds of the people are suspected of being involved in some illicit activity out there. The one-third that aren't involved know about the other two-thirds," said one source close to the investigation.
Sources say the ramp agents and other employees used their employee passes and airport access -- while both on and off-duty -- to meet planes carrying the fake contraband.
The airline agents allegedly would either drive the earmarked "drug" baggage off the airport property to the employee parking lot, or bypass U.S. Customs inspection by directly taking the baggage to a domestic baggage claim area for pre-arranged pickup.
To deliver the phony cocaine to other U.S. cities without having the drugs detected, airline employees would take advantage of the access afforded by their employee ID to use employee-only doors and bypass security checkpoints, including X-ray machines, sources say.
In one case, informed sources say, a suspect carrying fake cocaine aboard a flight to Philadelphia allegedly helped deliver hand grenades, handguns and ammunition inside a briefcase along with the fake drugs.
The grenades and guns had been disabled by law enforcement authorities.
Law enforcement agents say they also uncovered baggage and cargo theft at Miami International Airport but did not divert their drug investigation to pursue criminal charges for the thefts.
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