The federal sting operation that this week uncovered a massive drug smuggling network among baggage handlers and other airport ramp workers is expected to prompt beefed-up security at Miami International and airports across the country.
But the breakup of the biggest airport smuggling ring ever uncovered may be, in the end, only a minor setback for drug traffickers who use airport personnel to bring illegal drugs into the United States.
Most airports in the US are less protected from smuggling operations than is Miami's, says a US Customs official who complained about security violations at the Miami airport more than four years ago.
Even in Miami, "it will take another month or two put these smuggling rings back together," says Crowley Forrester, now president of the union that represents Customs employees in south Florida.
Beyond the drug smuggling, the case raises questions about a host of problems related to airport security. In addition to drugs, guns and explosives were also being smuggled. If undercover agents can hire airline workers to carry explosives onto a plane, terrorist groups posing as drug dealers could do the same, analysts say.
"Miami is just like a free-for-all out there," says Mr. Forrester. "You could put bazookas on a plane if you wanted to. The employees have 24-hour, seven-day access to everything on the airfield."
Forrester sparked the ire of his bosses and airport managers several years ago when he objected to what he characterized as an almost total lack of security in and around airport ramp areas. Though he was reassigned, he continued to complain.
Two years ago, after an American Airlines pilot reported drinking coffee that "tasted wierd," an investigation began. Caterers had been smuggling heroin in coffee packets. The undercover efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration and US Customs were dubbed Operation Ramp Rat and Operation Sky Chef. They focused on ramp workers and food-service personnel working with American Airlines. Officials say that the group was well organized and in full operation by the time the undercover sting began.
American Airlines cooperated with federal agents during the sting operation.
Officials say they are continuing to follow leads in the case, and so far 58 airport employees have been indicted. It included the smuggling of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Among those indicted were the son of Puerto Rico's police chief, a local deputy sheriff, an immigration inspector, and an agriculture inspector.
The smuggling operation relied on airline employees using their company-issued security badges to gain access to the ramp areas and airplanes without having to pass through security check points. Federal agents posing as drug smugglers hired the employees to carry kilo-sized bricks of cocaine through the airport in small backpacks and onto flights so the drugs could be distributed throughout the US.
Antidrug efforts at the airport, like drug sniffing dogs and baggage searches, are directed at passengers moving through the terminal or the aircraft cargo. The airline workers used their badges, their company uniforms, and an employees' entrances to bypass law enforcement screening areas.
IN some instances, drugs were concealed under or in rolling cabinets carrying in-flight meals. In other cases, the drugs were hidden in bathrooms, the plane's galley, in the cargo hold, or even in the area of the landing gear.
Since September 1997, agents conducted 38 transactions to move 283 kilograms of fake cocaine through the network. To show the ruthlessness of the smugglers, the agents even hired them to transport what airline employees believed were live grenades and a loaded pistol.
The employees charged $7,000 to transport and deliver three grenades and a pistol. They charged $1,500 for each kilogram of cocaine.
The case illustrates that there is no shortage of people willing to aid drug traffickers to make money, including people who are well-placed to use their special access to break the law.
Under existing federal laws, airlines could be liable for hefty fines and even face seizure of a plane if a jetliner is used to smuggle narcotics. Officials say the policy prompted airlines to beef up their own security. But some analysts say the sting operation demonstrates that the airlines are either not willing or not able to conduct strict security operations.
In a written statement American Airlines said: "While we are disturbed that a small group of employees was part of this smuggling ring, their activities have been under federal government and company surveillance for quite some time. We will continue our efforts with law enforcement officials to stem the flow of illegal drugs."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society