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Baggage, cargo handlers arrested in drug probe
Smuggling ring accused of importing 400 kilos of cocaine
By Deborah Feyerick and Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau
Tuesday, November 25, 2003 Posted: 5:35 PM EST (2235 GMT)

The U.S. attorney's office says 25 airport workers smuggled in hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana.


NEW YORK (CNN) -- Twenty-five current or former baggage and cargo handlers -- most of whom worked at John F. Kennedy International Airport -- have been arrested on suspicion of smuggling drugs into the United States, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

"This was a classic inside job," U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf said at a news briefing. "Their status gave them unrestricted access to international passenger and cargo flights."

She said two of those arrested were supervisors at JFK who assigned others to offload the contraband cargo.

The suspects are charged with conspiracy to import controlled substances, a federal offense that, upon conviction, carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a $4 million fine.

Most of the 25 worked for subcontractors and were assigned to various airlines, the criminal complaint said. Most worked for Evergreen Eagle, which contracted with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to provide baggage and cargo handlers, while others worked for Globe Ground North American, and a few were employees of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

The contracted workers were primarily assigned to Air Jamaica and Universal Airlines, a carrier from Guyana.

The drug ring smuggled 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of cocaine, as well as hundreds of pounds of marijuana shipped from Jamaica and from Guyana, said Bob Nardoza, a spokesman for Mauskopf.

According to the complaint, the employees had unrestricted access to arriving international cargo and passenger flights. They are accused of either taking possession of the drug shipments or diverting them to safe areas for later distribution, thus avoiding inspection.

The complaint says the investigation began in October 2002 after cocaine shipments were intercepted on a Universal Airlines flight from Guyana.

Subsequent surveillance of Universal flights led to the arrest of an employee caught diverting a suitcase containing cocaine, the complaint says, and that employee later cooperated with investigators, making recorded telephone calls to other baggage handlers involved in the ring. Numerous wiretaps were used in the investigation.

The largest single seizure was 185 kilograms (407 pounds) of cocaine packed in three cargo boxes, intercepted September 20, the complaint says. The street value of that shipment alone is estimated at $23 million.

According to the complaint, 22 people were arrested in New York and three in Miami, Florida. The 22 arrested in New York included 19 current airport employees and one former employee, it said. Twenty-three of the suspects were arrested Tuesday. It was not clear when the others were taken into custody.

Agents also seized $500,000, five handguns and four vehicles in Tuesday's raids, according to the complaint.

The investigation was jointly conducted by federal agents with the bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, the Port Authority police, and investigators for the U.S attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which encompasses Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, where the airport is located.

Michael Garcia, acting secretary of ICE, said, "That smuggling activity exposes a vulnerability in our border security, and that is a vulnerability we will address."

CNN's Jonathan Wald contributed to this report.