Drug sting nabs American Airlines workers
Dozens of arrests in Florida, New York
August 25, 1999
From Correspondent Susan Candiotti
MIAMI (CNN) -- Nearly 60 people, most of them American Airlines employees, face federal drug smuggling conspiracy charges following a two-and-a-half-year undercover operation that used fake cocaine, sources told CNN Wednesday.
The suspects, including airline ramp agents and Sky Chefs food service workers, are charged 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.
In a statement, American Airlines said, "While we are disturbed that a small group of employees were part of a smuggling ring, their activity has been under federal government and company surveillance for quite some time. We will continue with our cooperative efforts with law enforcement officials to stem the flow of illegal drugs."
Three-hundred kilograms (661 pounds) 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."
The roundup of suspects in "Operation Ramp Rats" began before dawn Wednesday.
Arrests, made in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas and in New York, were timed to coincide with the unsealing of a grand jury indictment.
The raids were conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs Service, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Miami-Dade police department.
Sources say the arrests stem from the lengthy undercover sting carried out by the DEA and the Customs Service after evidence was uncovered of alleged smuggling of real drugs at Miami International Airport.
Because the "drugs" involved in Wednesday's arrests were not real, the suspects escaped the most serious drug charges. Instead, they were charged with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute.
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.
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 kilograms (11-33 pounds) each and couriers allegedly earned up to $3,000 per trip.
Authorities speaking on the condition of anonymity tell CNN the undercover operation illustrates widespread corruption among American Airlines ramp employees.
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.
SabreTech employees face conspiracy charges in federal court
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