Deadly Cargo

Big payoffs. Gruesome murders. Nosy feds. Life as a cargo handler at MIA just ain't what it used to be.

By 1997 Vincent Bonitto had been smuggling drugs through Miami International Airport for at least a year, prosecutors say. But the 27-year-old American Airlines ramp worker's alleged foray into the criminal underworld didn't prepare him for the events of July 14 that year, according to what he told police and his defense attorney. Bonitto's story was recently revealed in open court.

When Bonitto pulled a red Mazda into the parking lot of the Paramount Hotel near the airport, he knew enough to be nervous. Along for the ride were Pedro Pena, a New York City drug dealer with a mean streak, and Pena's sidekick, Anthony Omura. They were there to meet Wilbert Robles, a fellow doper who owed Pena money.

Robles showed no apprehension when the men picked him up. He slid into the Mazda's front seat and Bonitto pulled from the parking lot on to Le Jeune Road. Moments later Pena told Bonitto to turn down a side street. The driver dutifully followed directions and continued a few blocks.

That's when Pena pressed a handgun to the back of Robles's head and pulled the trigger.

As the bullet popped, Bonitto, a newlywed with no criminal record, blanched. He was too shaken to move. Pena and Omura dropped him off at a nearby Denny's restaurant while they devised a plan to dispose of the body. Don't go anywhere, they told him. We'll be right back.

About an hour later, just as Bonitto was regaining his composure, the red Mazda returned. The two men had gone shopping, and they showed off their purchases: bags of cement mix, a shovel, buckets, and a chain saw. Bonitto took one look at the blade on the machine and begged off. He was simply a cargo handler, he told them, not a gangster. Too late, Pena answered. We're not asking you; we're telling you. Given what Bonitto had just witnessed, he was in no position to argue.

The trio drove to a Miami-area apartment and hustled Robles's body inside. That's where Bonitto watched in horror as the chain saw revved to life. Someone, it's unclear who, cut off the corpse's hands, head, and feet, then bundled the bloody mess in some sheets.

Later, as the car sped west along the Tamiami Trail into the marshy saw grass of the Everglades with Robles's remains in the trunk, Bonitto had plenty of time to ponder how his morning had degenerated into this nightmare. The body was buried in the muck, and the men returned to Miami to continue the business at hand: smuggling cocaine.

Authorities didn't find the hacked-up corpse for a year. And it wasn't until this past July that American Airlines officials called Bonitto to corporate security offices, where a couple of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents arrested him for drug smuggling. The story of Robles's murder was discussed by Bonitto's lawyer, Sam Rabin, a Miami-Dade detective, and prosecutors at Bonitto's July 8 bond hearing.

Police have not charged Pena with killing Robles. In fact prosecutors have no need to hurry the prosecution. Pena is not going anywhere. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute drugs last year in federal court and awaits sentencing. His lawyer, Justin Levine, acknowledges his client is a suspect in the killing, but declined comment.

Bonitto, meanwhile, is free on bond while awaiting trial in New York.

The immense scope of the airport drug trade became clear this past August and September, soon after Bonitto's arrest, when a federal task force involving the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms snapped shut several investigations and indicted 66 airport employees. The suspects were accused of running an illegal cargo service for everything from marijuana to grenades.

Although the arrests made international news, the violence and murders that accompanied the smuggling were not publicized. Blue-collar workers, who call themselves ramp rats, easily got in over their heads while mixing with predatory drug dealers, according to public records, law enforcement authorities, and airport sources involved in the probes. Bonitto, for instance, was an unwitting participant in a drug feud. Other ramp workers involved in the narcotics world simply became greedy and stole the drugs or money they were supposed to be transporting. They would claim the contraband was lost. "The dumb [ramp rats] don't give a shit," says one law enforcement source, who asked not to be identified. "They steal money or drugs from the dopers, and then the dopers hire private investigators to track them down. These drug dealers aren't stupid."

How brutal is Miami International? As many as ten people have been killed in drug-related cases over the past decade, say law enforcement and airport sources, who decline to be identified. And five ramp rats have inexplicably disappeared during the past five years without notice, leaving behind paychecks and personal items. "People tell us they went home," offers an airport source. "But when the airline checks the home, usually in a foreign country, no one has seen them."

Federal investigators have been literally bumping into one another for years as they followed dealers, drugs, and death through MIA. In 1997 the feds arrested six American Airlines workers for smuggling at least 160 kilos of cocaine from Colombia to Miami. In 1998 New York-based DEA agents began probing the drug ring involving Bonitto.

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