Smuggling sting nabs 55 from airline, contractor
In this story:
'We could have put anything on those planes'
'Keys to the kingdom'
'We ran out of money'
Heroin in pilot's coffee
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MIAMI (CNN) -- A sting operation that left 58 people -- most of them American Airlines baggage handlers or workers from a food contractor -- facing drug smuggling conspiracy charges should be a "wake-up call" for the airline industry, according to the top U.S. Customs official.
"These arrests should serve as a wake-up call to the airline industry that greater attention must be paid to preventing drug smuggling on commercial flights," said U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Federal agents and Miami police fanned out before dawn Wednesday to make arrests at several locations, including Miami International Airport.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott said the undercover investigation -- using fake drugs -- got under way in April 1997 after evidence was uncovered showing that real drugs were being smuggled at Miami International Airport.
Because the contraband involved in "Operation Ramp Rats" was not real, the suspects escaped the most serious drug charges. Instead, they were charged with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute.
The 58 suspects named in federal indictments are accused of plotting to smuggle drugs from South America into the United States or acting as couriers within the United States to deliver drugs from Miami to other cities.
"I was surprised to see the number of people involved in it," said Kelly. "Air carriers and other companies that operate internationally must be aware of their vulnerabilities and take steps to protect against them."
Customs agents worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the two-year investigation.
Federal authorities said the sting uncovered "dangerous, intolerable" security conditions at Miami International Airport.
"We could have put anything on those planes we wanted to, including weapons, guns -- anything," said U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott while revealing details of the operation. Some of the suspects face weapons charges.
Officials at Miami International Airport said they had no comment on federal criticism of security there.
In one case, authorities said, an American Airlines employee carrying fake cocaine aboard a flight to Philadelphia also helped transport hand grenades, a handgun and ammunition which had been placed inside a briefcase.
Unknown to the suspect, the grenades and gun had been disabled by law officers.
Most of suspects are American Airlines baggage handlers and ramp agents, leading authorities to call one part of their lengthy investigation "Operation Ramp Rats."
Thirteen of the people indicted are contract employees who also have access to American Airlines planes. They work for a company called Sky Chefs, which supplies food served aboard airplanes.
"They are the ant army that descends on the airplane. They are perceived to be part of the landscape," said Tom Cash, a former Drug Enforcement Administration chief who is now a consultant for the Miami-based Kroll Associates security firm.
"The people that are never looked at are those who have a legitimate reason to be there. These are the people with the keys to the kingdom," Cash said.
Sources say the ramp agents and other workers 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 inspectors 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 it detected, airline workers 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.
The indictments also name two federal inspectors -- one from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and one from the Department of Agriculture -- as well as a Broward County (Florida) sheriff's officer who worked part time as a baggage handler.
The price tag for the elaborate sting was $1 million.
Sources said 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of phony cocaine was used in the investigation and more than $300,000 paid to suspects. "We didn't run out of defendants," said one source. "We ran out of money."
Law enforcement sources tell CNN that ramp agents unloaded what they thought was cocaine from American Airlines flights arriving from Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia.
It's alleged they delivered 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, authorities allege.
Sources say the packages weighed 5 to 15 kilograms (11 to 33 pounds) each, and couriers allegedly earned up to $3,000 per trip.
A separate portion of the investigation -- dealing with food service employees and given the name "Operation Sky Chef" -- began in April of last year after an American Airlines pilot commented that the coffee he drank aboard an aircraft tasted weak.
"Flight attendants went back and checked the coffee filters, and they were filled with heroin, six kilos of heroin within the coffee filter," Kelly said.
Federal prosecutors said that started investigators down the right trail.
"Heroin was literally found in coffee packages that had been placed aboard the airplane in Colombia and flown (to the United States)," Scott said. "Based upon that, it became obvious to law enforcement officers that either Sky Chef or American was involved in (drug) distribution."
"I want to stress that American Airlines fully cooperated in this investigation," Kelly said. "Top management was informed about the suspected employees from the start and offered law enforcement authorities whatever access they needed to execute the investigations."
American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, Texas, said it would continue to cooperate with the investigation.
"While we are disturbed that a small group of employees were part of this smuggling ring, their activities have been under surveillance by the federal government and the company for some time," said airline security chief Larry Wansley.
"This is a company with zero tolerance for illegal drugs," he told reporters.
Authorities told CNN the undercover operation illustrates widespread corruption among American Airlines baggage and ramp employees.
Wansley, however, insisted that only a small group of employees was involved. The company, he said, was not expecting any disruption of service.
No one among American Airlines management employees, pilots or flight attendants was said to have been involved in the alleged smuggling ring.
Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Reuters contributed to this report.
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