Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

If Drug Smugglers Can, What about Terrorists? as Airline Employees Are Charged with Sneaking Drugs and Grenades Into

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

If Drug Smugglers Can, What about Terrorists? as Airline Employees Are Charged with Sneaking Drugs and Grenades Into

Article excerpt

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. …

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