KWAME HOLMAN: Authorities began rounding up American Airlines baggage and food service workers before dawn...climaxing a two-year, two-part investigation dubbed "Operation Ramp Rats" and "Operation Sky Chefs." The raid centered on Miami International Airport, which the FBI says was the nucleus of an international smuggling ring. The multi-law enforcement agency task force used buses to transport the dozens of suspects in what one official said was the largest airport drug bust in history. The U.S. Attorney in Miami, Thomas Scott, spoke to reporters early this afternoon.
A two-year investigation
THOMAS SCOTT: The employees that were involved in this case in the takedown today consisted of 58 individuals: 30 of them were employees of American Airlines; 13 were employees of Lufthansa Sky Chef. Three of them were state or federal law enforcement people, one from the INS, one from the Broward Sheriff's Office and one from the United States Department of Agriculture who were charged. The other individuals were laypeople involved in this. And this operation and six of these individuals will be charged, by the way, in New York because of the distribution.
KWAME HOLMAN: Scott described how authorities became suspicious.
THOMAS SCOTT: And I think you'll recall from the newspapers the situation where there was an American Airlines flight where heroin was literally found in coffee packages that had been placed on the airplane in Colombia and flown here and literally the investigation revealed that the pilot of the plane, when he began to drink the coffee, said, "There's a distinct taste, it's sort of weak." And when they went back and investigated it, they found that there was heroin in the packages. Based upon that, it became obvious to law enforcement officers in April that either Sky Chef or American was involved in the distribution of cocaine.
KWAME HOLMAN: Scott said police soon uncovered a busy smuggling operation, with tentacles reaching from South America through the Eastern United States. Scott illustrated one of several schemes.
THOMAS SCOTT: Here you can literally see an American employee in uniform at the Denny's near the airport receiving the cocaine. He then enters the airport in his uniform. Notice that the backpack-- the employees carry backpacks and this is obviously for things that they need on the ramps -- but it's also the way the cocaine and the contraband is also carried, in these backpacks. And here they literally enter the airport. They then use their security pass to go down into the secured areas, bypassing the metal detectors, bypassing the security and then end up in a secured area by the gate. And here you can see literally the American Airlines employee with the bag, passing the cocaine to the individual who will then take it to the northeastern city. I want to repeat something, if I haven't said it, but let me say this to you: In many of these transactions, these individuals were not supposed to be at the airport. They were not working that day. They had come to the airport literally to perform criminal conduct utilizing their security passes, utilizing their uniforms in order to bypass security, bypass the laws of the United States and take contraband onto these airplanes.
"Willing to smuggle anything"
KWAME HOLMAN: Agents said they learned the suspects were willing to smuggle anything for a price. In one case, charging undercover agents $7,000 to smuggle a dummy hand grenade aboard a domestic American Airlines flight. Patricia Galupo is an agent with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
PATRICIA GALUPO, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: Can you imagine when you're loading up the family and the kids, you're going to Disney World, you're going to go on an American Airlines flight, and you're all competing for that very precious cargo overhead space above your seat. And when you're going down that aisle and trying to find your seat and you're putting your bag up with your tennis racquet and your kids' toys, you're competing with this. I mean this is what these guys carried on board this aircraft.
KWAME HOLMAN: American Airlines officials were aware of the undercover operation from the very early stages and cooperated in it. The airline's chief of security spoke to reporters in Miami this morning.
LARRY WANSLEY, Security Director, American Airlines: These arrests are having no impact on our operation. Most of the arrests took place at the individuals' homes. While we are disturbed that a small group of employees were part of this smuggling ring, their activities have been under surveillance by the federal government and the company departments for quite some time. This is a company with zero tolerance for illegal drugs. We will continue our cooperative efforts with the officials of the various agencies to stem the tide of illegal drugs.
MARGARET WARNER: Sky Chefs officials did not offer comment on the news.