Deadly Cargo

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

This past summer's arrests were the culmination of four related investigations. Operation Ramp Rats, the largest, began two years ago, when DEA agents posing as drug dealers paid airline workers to smuggle nearly 300 kilos of fake cocaine from Colombia through Miami to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and other cities. It concluded August 25, when agents collared 36 American Airlines workers, who labored on the ramps that service airplanes. On the same day agents finished Operation Sky Chef, a probe of corrupt airline food-service workers that netted thirteen people. Two weeks later, on September 9, the feds closed two more investigations -- Operation Ramp Rats II and Operation ICon -- and charged seventeen airport employees.

The sheer number of suspects and their brazenness (they routinely walked past airport security with satchels full of drugs) grabbed worldwide attention. José Toledo, the 24-year-old son of Puerto Rico's police chief and an American Airlines employee, was accused of smuggling cocaine. A Broward County deputy sheriff, an immigration employee, and an agriculture inspector were also indicted.

The number of crooked ramp workers is only a fraction of the army of 2300 "fleet service clerks" at American. Many of those accused of transporting contraband had no prior arrests, but apparently were seduced by the flood of drug money offered by dealers. The ramp workers, who tow aircraft, transfer baggage, and clean the planes, earn between $7 and $10.60 per hour.

Despite the busts, the DEA doesn't believe it has cleaned up Miami International. The airport drug trade was so established that undercover agents could only penetrate a few smuggling rings. Once inside, agents discovered as many as twenty groups operating at the airport. In addition one elite level of smugglers only moved large quantities of dope, 50 to 100 kilos at a time. They were very careful about their business. Agents still hope to convince several defendants in the Ramp Rats cases to implicate this top echelon.

Perhaps more disturbing than the volume of cocaine flowing through the terminals were the weapons the feds moved. On July 22 undercover investigators hired cargo handler Edwin Rodriguez to carry two cases past security into the boarding area; one contained three kilos of fake cocaine and the other held three hand grenades, a handgun, and a magazine of cartridges. An agent then pretended to take the contraband on to the plane. (Before boarding, the cases were switched so no weapons actually were transported.) Rodriguez charged $7000 for his efforts. During a meeting in an airport garage that preceded the smuggling attempt, undercover agents had shown Rodriguez the drugs and weapons. There was an implicit threat. "[The agents] told him that sometimes people didn't pay, and sometimes we need to take care of business," a source close to the investigation recounts.

The potential for abuse by terrorists was huge. As a law enforcement source close to the investigation observed: "The Sky Chef people swipe a card to open a gate, and then drive their van right out onto the runway. You can't see in the van. They aren't checked. They could be hiding an entire terrorist team in there and no one would know. It's terrifying." In a press conference at his downtown office, U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott made sure to blast American Airlines and airport authorities for the security lapses, which were "intolerable ... in the age of domestic terrorism."

American Airlines officials say they worked closely with federal agencies probing the smuggling. "From the outset American was an active and involved participant in the investigation," the airline's chairman, Donald Carty, wrote after the Ramp Rats arrests. "In the process we devoted significant company resources providing information and assistance.... We allowed undercover agents to have unfettered access to all our operations." American's Miami-based vice president, Dennis LeBright, announced the airline would revamp its security measures. Employees would be prohibited from entering concourses via jet bridges, all workers would pass through x-ray machines, and the airlines would issue new security cards to limit access to sensitive areas.

Indeed the problem may be endemic to the route. American bought its South American business from Eastern Airlines in 1990. Throughout the 1980s drug problems had plagued Eastern. In 1984 U.S. Customs officials even confiscated an Eastern jet after finding three pounds of cocaine onboard. The episode prompted Eastern to become the first airline to sign an anti-smuggling agreement with customs. As a result the airline began checking employees' backgrounds.

Yet a year later, in 1985, 22 Eastern baggage handlers were indicted for helping import one billion dollars' worth of cocaine. The handlers would stash suitcases full of cocaine behind panels in an airplane's luggage compartment while in Colombia. When the planes landed in Miami, crooked workers would remove the coke-filled suitcases and put phony tags on them. Smugglers with tickets that matched the cases waited at the carousel. The workers were showered with drug cash for their help. "I played with the money like it was water," Ruy Martinez, a convicted baggage handler, told a federal jury in 1989. He and his colleagues could make nearly half a million dollars on a big shipment.

The ramp rats became so smug about stealing the drugs they were hired to transport that retaliation by drug dealers was inevitable. Airline workers Jorge Garcia and Gerardo Ortega not only defied their criminal clients, but they dared the cops to chase them, prosecutors say. The partners couldn't have had a better warning to fly straight than awakening on August 25 to the news that authorities were rounding up their American Airlines colleagues like Texas longhorns. Surely that meant Garcia and Ortega would shut down the drug-smuggling ring they allegedly ran from Dispatch Services, an independent air cargo company. Garcia, Ortega, and their crew charged $1500 per kilo to move coke through the airport. (Both men's lawyers declined to comment for this story.)

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