Miami officials defend airport security
August 27, 1999
MIAMI (CNN) -- Miami International Airport is "safe and secure," local officials insist, despite this week's indictment of 58 people in a massive drug and weapons smuggling sting.
Most of the suspects are American Airlines employees or contract workers. All but six of those named in the federal indictments were in custody Friday, with the latest four arrests taking place Thursday.
One of those arrested Thursday -- airline ramp worker Jose Toledo -- comes from a law enforcement family. His father is the superintendent of police in Puerto Rico and his brother is a drug agent in Florida.
Another man arrested Thursday showed up in uniform to report to work at the Miami airport, apparently unaware that there had been dozens of arrests the day before.
Politicians and airport officials sought to repair the city's image on Thursday, one day after U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott and other federal officials alleged that dozens of airport workers were involved in the smuggling of fake cocaine, hand grenades and guns onto passenger planes.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas defended the facility Thursday saying, "This airport meets or exceeds all federal requirements and regulations."
Penelas said the airport had increased security in the past two years, including limiting employee access to planes. He said airport officials would study further limiting that access and the types of bags employees are allowed to bring into secure areas.
Tim Frawley, chairman of the Airline Management Council, which represents the 130 airlines operating at the Miami airport, said the drug arrests don't fairly represent most employees.
"This was a minority group. Sixty out of -- how many? -- 35,000 employees. That is a very, very small percentage."
Miami International Airport, run by Miami-Dade County, is the 12th busiest in the world and seventh busiest in the United States -- with 34 million passengers a year, according to airport officials.
It serves 130 airlines running 1,200 daily flights, and 35,000 people work there every day.
The alleged smugglers hid drugs in food carts and carry-on luggage. They were charged with conspiring to smuggle drugs, and with other drug and weapons offenses. Officials said no real cocaine, guns or grenades made it aboard aircraft during the sting operations.
But prosecutors said workers had virtually free rein in the airport, using their security identification to bypass metal detectors and enter secure areas where they had no business.
The Miami airport has long been a prime target of South American cartels moving cocaine to their North American distribution hubs. Airport security procedures were "obviously insufficient to do the job," Scott said Wednesday.
Penelas agreed there had been a "collective security breach," but, he added, local police participated with federal agencies in the sting and knew about much of the smuggling as it was happening.
"We allowed them to continue because there was a much larger network of individuals and we wanted to make sure they were all arrested," the mayor said.
Penelas said the airport is looking at additional recommendations made by federal prosecutors, including further reductions in employee access and limits on the type of bags allowed in restricted areas.
The Federal Aviation Administration said airlines are responsible for hiring ramp workers but are not required to conduct criminal background checks unless anomalies turn up during routine employment checks.
Frawley was asked why airlines do not conduct criminal background checks on all potential employees. "I don't know the answer to that question," he said.
Smuggling sting nabs 55 from airline, contractor
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