Miami airport probe could put deep crimp in cocaine traffic from South America

The drug-smuggling probe of baggage handlers and mechanics at Miami International Airport could shut down a significant cocaine channel from South America to dealers in the United States. The ongoing inquiry by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) centers on Eastern Airlines, where up to 50 employees, probably low level, may be indicted within the next several weeks.

Reports indicate that the suspected smugglers may have been importing up to 300 pounds a week for four years. If correct, this could amount to around 10 percent of national cocaine imports, as estimated by the DEA.

Over one year, this channel could account for nearly 60 percent of the cocaine smuggled by commercial airlines, which the DEA figures at roughly 18 percent of total annual imports. ``There's no question in anybody's mind that this is an amount to be worried about,'' says DEA spokesman Bill Deac.

US Justice Department officials in Miami are worried about the premature publicity on this case. DEA chief John Lawn first spoke publicly of the probe on Tuesday. It's not clear why. On Wednesday, the US attorney's office in Miami, said: ``The Department of Justice people are astonished.''

``We never, never comment on an ongoing investigation,'' spokeswoman Anna Barnett said.

The office would not comment further on reports that the publicity could jeopardize the probe.

Some of the biggest drug seizures in recent years have involved commercial airlines, including Eastern.

US Customs agents seized an Eastern jet in Miami in April 1984, after finding several pounds of cocaine hidden beneath the cockpit.

In August of last year, 1,722 pounds of cocaine were discovered in the cargo bays of two Eastern jets, and the airline was fined nearly $1.5 million.

In the current case, Eastern baggage handlers reportedly shift baggage carrying cocaine around to avoid customs inspectors as well as sniff dogs. Once bags arriving from Bogota, Colombia, pass by customs in Miami, they can travel on domestic flights to New York.

Reports, some of which come from an NBC investigation, indicate that Eastern baggage and cargo in Bogota is handled by a company controlled by smuggling-ring leaders.

Eastern representatives in Bogota say that the airline handles its own baggage operations, and that other airlines, such as Lufthansa, also use Eastern baggage handlers.

Ten pounds of cocaine were discovered in a Lufthansa flight from Bogota in March of last year when the plane landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The drug was packed in a girdle found hidden in the plane's lavatory.

Another major smuggling-ring bust was made in 1984, when Customs investigations led to the indictment of 29 people, including two customs agents, two airport skycaps, and 25 young drug couriers.

In Operation High Hat, according to Leon Guinn, assistant special agent in charge of Customs's Miami office, skycaps inside the customs enclosure worked in collusion with two corrupt customs inspectors. The skycaps would steer bags carrying cocaine to the customs agents, or put the bags in with those of innocent travelers unlikely to face inspection.

That ring, says Mr. Guinn, was easily capable of importing 300 pounds a week.

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