DEA: American Airlines Workers Smuggled Cocaine Into Miami, New York

PHOTO: U.S. federal agents say they raided Puerto Ricos international airport and other areas early on June 6, 2012, arresting at least 33 people suspected of smuggling millions of dollars worth of drugs aboard commercial flights.

In the latest arrests of U.S. airport workers on drug smuggling charges, authorities charged that two rings of nearly 50 corrupt employees at Puerto Rico's main airport smuggled thousands of kilograms of cocaine onto commercial flights bound for mainland U.S. cities, including Miami, Orlando and New York.

One ring, allegedly led by Maribel Rodriguez Fragoso, AKA La Flaca or "the Skinny Woman," was made up of workers for a baggage handling and maintenance company at San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, and allegedly brought cocaine-stuffed backpacks and suitcases into cities up and down the East Coast between 2010 and 2012. The other, allegedly led by American Airlines employee Wilfredo Rodriguez Rosado , included American Airlines workers and is charged with smuggling more than 9,000 kilos of the white powder between 2000 and 2009.

The DEA arrested 36 people Wednesday morning, and unsealed indictments charging a total of 45 individuals with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). In addition to arrests in Puerto Rico, a DEA official says three American Airlines employees were arrested in the mainland U.S. -- two in Miami and one in Dallas.

The DEA alleges members of the La Flaca ring used their company's baggage vehicles to take suitcases stuffed with cocaine and place them directly on commercial flights. The ring would also allegedly bring cocaine into airport employee-only restrooms, where ring members would hand backpacks full of cocaine to drug couriers who would then board planes. The ring allegedly shipped cocaine to Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Orlando, among other cities.

The American Airlines ring was disrupted by the DEA in 2009 in an operation called Heavy Cargo. Twenty-three people, including nine American Airlines employees, were indicted, and Rodriguez and 21 others pled guilty. According to authorities, members of the ring transported suitcases full of cocaine from the American Airlines cargo area and onto American Airlines flights bound for such cities as Newark, New York, Miami and Orlando. The DEA today announced indictments of 20 more individuals who were allegedly involved in the smuggling ring.

The arrests come 13 years after the DEA's Operation Ramp Rats, in which the agency busted 59 individuals, most of them American Airlines employees, for alleged involvement in drug smuggling at Miami International and JFK. While some workers were acquitted, dozens were convicted or pled guilty. More recently, the DEA brought drug smuggling charges against airline or airport workers in 2007 and 2010.

"DEA will continue to dismantle these organizations that think they can blatantly use legitimate entities to carry out their smuggling operations," said DEA Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Caribbean Division, Pedro Janer.

DEA Deputy Administrator Thomas M. Harrigan today said, "Americans have a right to expect the highest integrity from those they entrust with their safety, and DEA is committed to protecting that trust. Today's arrests at one of the nation's busiest airports reflect our relentless commitment to working with our partners to aggressively fight drug trafficking, not only at our nation's points of entry, but at source, transit, and arrival zones throughout the world."

In a statement to the Associated Press, American Airlines said it always assists law enforcement, and helps to "prosecute individuals responsible to the fullest extent of the law. We have a zero tolerance policy for any employee when it comes to this type of activity."

The defendants in both cases are facing a minimum term of 10 years to life if convicted on all charges.

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