Deadly Cargo

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.

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.)

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.

While in Miami, Flaquer liked to hang out at the Naco Cafeteria on NW 36th Street. The owners, Osmay Oduardo and Ruben Garcia, both had prior convictions for drug dealing. Police suspect the men were involved in Flaquer's smuggling scheme. They also were probably the last two people to see Flaquer alive, Carmichael says. After Flaquer's disappearance Oduardo and Garcia sold the restaurant and disappeared. "We'd like to talk to them," Carmichael says dryly. "Their cooperation is sought in this case." (Carmichael says anyone with information can call him anonymously at 800-226-3019. There is reward money.)

As soon as news of Flaquer's death reached New York, someone at La Guardia broke into the dead man's locker and emptied it. Police never had a chance to look through his possessions. "That leads me to believe co-workers knew what he was doing," Carmichael posits. Indeed the FDLE agent says his investigation revealed that Flaquer helped organize a ring that delivered cocaine and heroin into the United States. Flaquer and his crew would stuff packages of the drugs behind panels in a plane's bathroom in Colombia. After the aircraft arrived in Miami, mechanics would remove the drugs during maintenance. "I interviewed three co-workers who said Flaquer set up the operation," Carmichael says.

In July 1997, a little more than a year after Flaquer's death, the FBI busted six American Airlines ramp workers on charges they smuggled 160 kilograms of cocaine into the country. Had Flaquer lived he would have been the seventh indictment in that case, says Carmichael.

As agents closed that investigation, DEA undercover agents had already started the Ramp Rats investigation. Monitoring drug smuggling at American Airlines was becoming a full-time job.

A year and a half after Flaquer's corpse was discovered in the dust of Palm Beach County, another dead American Airlines ramp worker turned up in Miami-Dade. On the night of November 25, 1997, 36-year-old Karl Smith was returning from a sixteen-hour shift at MIA when someone shot him. He was opening a gate at his home on NW 193rd Terrace when the attack occurred. Law enforcement sources say Smith was involved in the narcotics trade at the airport, and their probe focuses on his airport contacts.

"The police tell me they think my boy was working for somebody in the drug world," laments Smith's mother, Mary. "But I don't believe that. I never saw anything. When I closed out his bank account it had $6.84 in it. I'm his mother, and I don't know anything about that."

In fact Mary Smith's boy had just borrowed money to fix his car. "How could he be involved in drugs?" she asks.

Karl Smith was raised in Jamaica and came to the United States about ten years before his death. "He never get into no trouble growing up," his mother says. Karl was an athlete, an avid soccer player, and a licensed security guard. Some nights he moonlighted as a doorman at the South Beach club Amnesia. He was also a doting son, Mary Smith says. "I've got cancer, and if I ever had to go to the hospital, he was there, ready to take me. He was always there for me."

In the wake of the Ramp Rats arrests, police are combing through mysterious deaths and disappearances of the past. They hope a more careful reading will help restart investigations that have stalled.

Investigators are looking into the killing of a 41-year old American Airlines steward on Miami Beach. The case of a stewardess who fell fourteen floors to her death is also being reviewed. Then there are two suspicious beatings and a shooting in Miami. Authorities offer few details on any of the cases.

The violence is likely to continue as long as drugs and other contraband flow through the airport. Moreover this past August 31, less than a week after the first Ramp Rats bust, customs agents found $21 million worth of cocaine stashed in a shipment of fresh fish. No one stepped forward to claim the cargo, and there was no invoice attached. "They're still at it," says one federal source. And because drug dealers continue to offer big money, it's only a matter of time "until [the ramp rats] get cute, and steal from the dopers," he adds. "And that means soon someone's going to get whacked."


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