Ramp Rats' Revenge

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

"Of course you never know what you'll find," Marvin explains later, his elbows tipping a tiny dining table back and forth in a cramped corner of his kitchen. He and Barbara both receive food stamps, and Barbara is cooking picadillo and tostones. "It's best to get on the airlines the rich people use, like Lufthansa," Marvin advises. "Poor people use Lauda [another German airline]. Some bags come with locks as big as this table, but they're worthless. A lot of guys carry lock cutters, but you have to hide it under your shirt so no one can see it. Anyway, you usually don't need one. It's really easy to stick a pen into the zipper, unzip the bag, and zip it back up, and no one can tell it was opened." A playful expression momentarily animates Marvin's dark, impassive face, and he smiles guardedly. He slips a cigarette from the pack of Broncos lying on the table, lights it, takes a slow drag. "Sometimes you'll be fortunate enough to get an open bag, or one that's been torn during the flight. You have to fill out a form to report the damage to the airline, but you can take things out [of the suitcase] before you hand over the bag."

There are a lot more schemes Marvin and other ramperos have pulled. He'll be glad to explain them over a few Heinekens, and he's not one of those people who claim they're coerced into stealing by sub-poverty wages and barely human working conditions. But he won't deny it helps him get by, just a little.

"Life is hard." He shrugs. "Hay que saber vivir.You have to know how to live."

Marvin and all but a few of his fellow ramperos are immigrants from Caribbean or Latin-American countries who haven't lived here long enough to have a good grasp of the English language or the U.S. economic system. They labor in Miami's background, in a world defined by their principal worksite: the enclosed, dark, stifling airplane cargo holds where they come and go in a hurry, goaded and threatened by superiors, loading and unloading the baggage of travelers seated above them. These ramp agents operate in an opportunistic culture where crime is part of everyday working conditions. Stealing and smuggling are just ways to earn extra cash, sometimes big money, as seen during the past few years in some well-publicized cases of drug- and weapons-smuggling by mostly low-paid MIA drones. In the most recent federal sting operation at the Miami airport, a dozen ASIG ramp workers were arrested for helping smuggle several kilos of cocaine out of Avianca jets arriving from Colombia; authorities have promised more arrests in that case.

Not publicized are the crimes carried out by Marvin and dozens of other normally law-abiding airport workers. They simply steal from passenger luggage or make off with the suitcase itself. It's all loosely organized enough and deceptively simple enough to be very hard to detect and prevent. And because these relatively smalltime rip-offs aren't drug-related and rarely involve extravagant amounts of money, they receive less attention from law-enforcement authorities.

Customs agents inspect most foreign flights arriving at MIA, but they are not as concerned about departing and domestic flights, says Customs spokesman Zachary Mann. "We are constantly on the lookout, not so much for theft but for luggage loaded with drugs and other contraband. We don't have that big a problem with theft, that I'm aware of. We meet the planes so there's less of an opportunity for someone domestically to break into a bag. But if the bag is broken into outbound, going onto the plane, we wouldn't know."

Likewise the Federal Aviation Administration keeps track of complaints regarding "mishandled baggage," but only complaints received by the ten largest domestic airlines about what actually happened to the bags, and at which airport.

ASIG spokesman Dan Sellas in Orlando declines to characterize theft by employees as a major problem at MIA or at any other airport served by the company. "But we take very seriously any incident or accusation of theft," Sellas asserts. "We obviously investigate and run it through proper management channels, since we have to respect our employees. We'll coordinate with the authorities and do what's necessary to redress it. We've taken steps to ensure security at certain areas at the airport and work with our airline partners."

In the past two years, according to the Metro-Dade Police Department, 24 airport workers have been arrested for baggage theft, and 14 travelers have filed reports of property missing from their luggage. The police reports are mainly for insurance purposes, says Metro-Dade Lt. Juan Santana, chief of the general investigations unit at the MDPD airport district, since the passengers rarely know where the thefts occurred.

The Miami-Dade Aviation Department maintains what it calls safety and security teams "all over" the airport, according to spokeswoman Inson Kim, "and there have been lots of cases of the aviation department cooperating with law enforcement, but the department is certainly not going to talk about what things are in place to catch people [engaged in theft from luggage]."

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