Ramp Rats' Revenge

Checking luggage? Think long and hard before answering yes to that question at MIA

Five or six mornings a week, Marvin wakes up about six o'clock and drags his tall, bony frame out of bed. He's almost 40 years old, and his back, shoulders, and knees have begun to rebel against these early hours and the rough work he's been doing for close to two years now. He steps into a pair of rubber flip-flops and shuffles into the bathroom, sending roaches scurrying. It's still early enough that the usual commotion -- kids playing, old men arguing in harsh Spanish, the staccato thrumming of bachatafrom some CD player -- hasn't started yet in the concrete courtyard outside his one-bedroom apartment in Hialeah.

Marvin's girlfriend, Barbara, gets up about five minutes later. She turns on the radio in their linoleum-floored living room to a Spanish-language FM station that plays romantic ballads. She dresses in shorts and tank top, and brushes her teeth and long cottony black hair. Marvin pulls from its wire hanger one of the half-dozen light blue work shirts in his closet, along with a pair of dark blue polyester trousers. Over the shirt pocket is a pressed-on patch that reads "Marvin." Actually it reads his real name, which he doesn't want published. That is a reasonable request, since Marvin and many of his co-workers, so-called ramp agents at Miami International Airport, regularly commit crimes during the course of their workdays. All the ramp agents in this story have been given false names, and some personal characteristics and situations have been altered or omitted to avoid hinting at their identities. (Editor's note: The author maintains a personal relationship with a former ramp agent at Miami International Airport who is not a character in this article.)

Barbara, who was recently laid off from a job as a short-order cook, drives Marvin to the airport every morning and picks him up when his shift ends at 3:00 p.m. or later. The transportation arrangement isn't just because they have a single rusting station wagon between them; the real reason is they can't afford the $30-per-month airport parking fee on Marvin's $6.75-per-hour wage. Most companies doing business at MIA pay their employees' parking, but those such as Marvin's employer, a large contractor that provides competitively priced services to airlines, cut costs wherever possible, which is often at the bottom of their work force.

Marvin clocks in at the airport office of Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG) after passing through a metal detector and x-ray machine and presenting three ID cards. He's then dispatched in a minivan to a departing Lufthansa jet waiting to be fueled and loaded. Helping him with the baggage are five other ASIG ramp agents; the mostly Spanish-speaking workers call themselves ramperos. In English the slang is "ramp rats," a term made infamous in the 1999 undercover operation at MIA in which 60 American Airlines ramp agents were arrested for drug smuggling. Marvin's team on this flight includes three fellow Cubans with whom he often works -- Lazaro, Filberto, and Raul. They know the routine. While Marvin and Lazaro (both older, more experienced, and less physically resilient than the other two twentysomethings) climb into the front and middle cargo holds, Filberto and Raul stay at the doors of the holds, meeting the luggage as it rides up on a conveyor belt from the ground, then heaving the bags back into the depths of the holds for Marvin and Lazaro to stow. Meanwhile Filberto and Raul at the door look out for people like airline representatives and airport security personnel.

In the rapidly rising morning heat, Marvin and Lazaro position the suitcases, trunks, boxes, animal cages, and all the other cargo in the holds. But before they do, they've already appraised their potential yield. Marvin is an acknowledged master of trinket heist. He can spot a suitcase that looks full of loot (he relies mostly on hunches, as a good Customs agent does when deciding whether to search a traveler for contraband), open the bag (locks pose no deterrent), and in a matter of seconds pocket a gold bracelet and earrings, a few packs of cigarettes, and a bottle of expensive perfume. He'll set aside a video camera and a T-shirt he fancies. Later, if the coast is clear, he can spirit these bulkier items down the ramp, into a transport vehicle, and at the terminal into a secure hiding place like a tote bag, eventually an office locker or a car. Marvin will probably give Filberto a pack of cigarettes. He'll keep the jewelry for Barbara or sell it and the camera to one of his many airport acquaintances. He will be sure to slip the perfume (or perhaps a later find) to his supervisor -- "For your wife, compadre" -- in a subtle kickback gesture the ramperos call mojandolo, literally, "getting him wet." The routine is repeated in infinite variations depending on conditions during his shifts. It's not as easy as Marvin makes it sound, considering the hours of heavy lifting under sun or rain, usually without adequate manpower and always with intense pressure to do more, faster, to save those dollars on that underbid contract.

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