Deadly Cargo

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

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Diaz, on the day of the first Ramp Rats arrests, Garcia assured his two clients in Miami there would be no problem with the next load of cocaine, which was due in a few weeks. Garcia may have been eager to please this pair because in May his workers lost a suitcase stuffed with five kilos of the clients' cocaine. Following that incident Garcia had reimbursed the two men $5000 for the mishap and agreed to pay off the rest in trade -- that is, by smuggling dope.

But things were not as they seemed. Ortega had stolen the suitcase, prosecutors contend. Ortega gave Garcia two kilos and kept three, which he later sold. This bit of entrepreneurial brio didn't sit well with Garcia, who had an inkling of what could happen to upstarts in the drug trade. Garcia panicked and tossed his share of the dope into a lake.

If Ortega thought he was pulling one over on the coke smugglers, he was mistaken. The clients were not drug thugs. Rather, they were undercover DEA agents. And the suitcase Ortega had stolen was filled with fake cocaine.

Ortega then sold the pilfered stash to actual Miami dealers, who soon discovered the stuff was sham. Oops.

Two weeks after Ramp Rats I, on the night of September 7, some men in a van grabbed Ortega, pistol-whipped him, then tossed him, handcuffed, onto the street. A short time later they beat Garcia bloody as well. A law enforcement source close to the case speculates the two men probably survived because they were able to convince their captors they had no idea the stolen drugs were bogus.

The next day the feds cinched the noose on Operation Ramp Rats II, unveiling indictments against Garcia, Ortega, and eleven others at the airport. Police found the two men at home. Ortega was so bruised that police took him to Jackson Memorial Hospital. At their bond hearing, prosecutors used a novel argument in requesting that the judge not release the men. They said that because of the two men's drug dealing, "there are some very upset people ... looking for" them. Thus, it was safer for the community, and the two men, to be in custody.

Although Garcia and Ortega were badly thrashed, then arrested just a few hours later, they should consider themselves lucky. So should Vincent Bonitto, the American Airlines worker who says he was forced to witness Wilbert Robles's murder and dismemberment.

They're all alive.

Other ramp rats have not been as fortunate. According to sources with knowledge of airport workers' employment records, there have been numerous suspicious killings over the years. Numbers are hard to confirm. In many instances the homicides are still open investigations, and police are unwilling to share information.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is anxious, however, to disclose the facts surrounding Martin Flaquer's death. On April 18, 1996, Flaquer, who worked for American at La Guardia International Airport in New York, left his Nassau County home for a trip to Miami. Flaquer was driving a van that his family says had mysteriously appeared a month earlier. The 37-year-old Flaquer told his parents, with whom he lived, that he was driving south to deliver the vehicle to some friends. He did not disclose the van's owner.

On April 19 that year, he arrived in Miami, or at least his cell phone did, according to FDLE agent Gary Carmichael. Several calls were made on it in Miami-Dade County. After about six hours of use, the phone went dead.

The next day workers entering the sugar cane fields of Palm Beach County on State Road 27 noticed a figure lying in the dirt. When the workers approached, they thought he was sleeping, maybe snoring off a binge. Then they noticed the blood seeping through his burgundy Aeropostale T-shirt. Flaquer had been shot and then dumped on the roadside. Police estimate at least two men deposited the body there after killing him. The pair was probably driving Flaquer's van, which has not been found.

Three days after workers discovered the corpse, Flaquer's family in New York filed a missing person's report. It took three months for a Nassau County detective to happen upon the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department bulletin on the missing man and identify the remains.

It was an unceremonious end for a guy who led a humble life. Flaquer, who went by the nickname Miguel, was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. He had worked a couple of years for American in Miami before transferring to La Guardia in 1995 to be closer to his parents and his elementary-school-age son. He drove a ten-year-old BMW, lived with his family, and was a good father. He also loved to stay out late partying and flirting with women, not a crime for a hard-working guy.

But there was another side to the working stiff. According to Carmichael, Flaquer had been smuggling cocaine for Colombian dealers for a few years. He traveled to South America on American Airlines about once a month and even had a Colombian girlfriend, who may have been Flaquer's link to the drug world. She died in an American Airlines jet that crashed in the Andes in 1995.

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