Authorities said a lost luggage handler was pulling double duty as the ringleader in a drug smuggling gang that hid narcotics in south of the border snacks and as a serial thief who stole valuables from the bags he was supposed to return to owners.
Jorge Guerrero, a 39-year-old employee of the private company American Distributors, was arrested Tuesday on 14 charges including attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance, criminal sale of a controlled substance and criminal possession of stolen property.
Guerrero was nabbed for his role in what authorities called a "narcotics conspiracy" to smuggle more than 11 lbs. of heroin and cocaine into the U.S. concealed in chocolate bar wrappers, candy, in containers of sugar and oatmeal cookies and stuffed inside empanadas. As part of the operation, the gang, made up of Guerrero and five accomplices who have also been arrested, tried to sneak in over 3 lbs. of liquid cocaine, having soaked a stack of scuba diving diplomas in the illicit substance, according to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York.
"The elaborate packaging and concealment of narcotics within the food products suggests an extremely sophisticated operation set up in Ecuador," said New York Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan.
The string of arrests was the result of a six-month wiretap investigation that uncovered the drugs were apparently being smuggled on commercial cargo planes that flew directly from Guayaquil, Ecuador to JFK airport in New York.
Once at JFK, the packages would be brought to a warehouse and then distributed by parcel delivery companies. The investigation found that Guerrero would pick up the drug packages during his trips to deliver lost luggage as part of his job with American Distributors, authorities said.
In addition to his leadership role in the smuggling operation, Guerrero moonlighted solo as a thief, officials said, stealing clothing, electronics and other valuables from passengers' lost luggage that he handled.
When agents searched Guerrero's home in Queens, New York, they seized 13 suitcases, some with tags bearing other people's names, according to prosecutors. They also found over 50 designer handbags, 20 cameras, 50 watches, 30 pairs of sunglasses, bottles of high end liquor, perfume, new clothing with the tags still attached, and a stockpile of electronics -- a combined total of 15 iPads, iPods and laptop computers.
"Whether using access to international cargo to profit from Ecuador's bargain wholesale prices for narcotics, or pilfering designer underwear from personal luggage, the Guerrero organization rarely overlooked an opportunity to earn a dishonest dollar," said Brennan in a press release.
An attorney for Guerrero did not immediately return requests for comment on this report.
Guerrero's lawyer, Frank Rothman criticized the prosecutor's office and told ABC News he has been unable to access the evidence directly linking his client to the "narcotics conspiracy" -- specifically, the phone calls discussed in an indictment against his client. He also noted that no drugs were recovered at his client's home.