TSA and Airport Employees Allegedly Smuggled 20 Tons of Cocaine Over 18 Years

A Transportation Security Administration security officer and his dog scan departing passengers at San Diego's airport on July 1, 2016. Last week, a grand jury in Puerto Rico indicted 12 current and former TSA and airport employees for allegedly smuggling approximately 20 tons of cocaine. Mike Blake/REUTERS

A dozen current and former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and airport employees are facing charges related to an alleged cocaine-smuggling operation going back almost two decades. A federal grand jury in Puerto Rico indicted the defendants on February 8, and the U.S. Department of Justice announced the news on Monday.

The defendants allegedly transported cocaine-filled suitcases through security at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Between 1998 and 2016, approximately 20 tons of cocaine made it through as part of the racket, according to the announcement. Drug mules would drop off the cocaine-filled suitcases at the airline check-in counter, the Justice Department said. Then one of the defendants would allegedly pick up the suitcases from the counter and put them into X-ray machines. Another participant in the smuggling operation is believed to have monitored those machines, allowing the suitcases to pass through. A defendant would then allegedly take the suitcases to the airplanes, making sure they continued to avoid detection.

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"TSA has zero tolerance for employees engaged in criminal activity to facilitate contraband smuggling," José Baquero, federal security director for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, said in Monday's announcement.

That announcement comes a week after a congressional subcommittee released a report about vulnerabilities in airport security. "At a time when we face increased threats from homegrown radicalization and lone-wolf terrorism, we must ensure that our airport access controls are strong and that we are doing all we can to mitigate the insider threat to aviation security," Transportation and Protective Security Subcommittee Chairman John Katko said in a statement accompanying the report. The report found that there are inconsistencies in how airport security officials educate employees and also that a majority of airports lack full employee screening at secure access points.

"Unfortunately, this stuff's been going around for really as long as there's been commercial aviation," says Jeff Price, an aerospace science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and owner of Leading Edge Strategies, an airport management training company. "As somebody who's a criminal, you're going to gravitate to a job that's going to enable your criminal activity."

The federal government had earlier identified San Juan's airport as a possible hub for drug trafficking. In 2012, a grand jury indicted 25 people who were allegedly part of a narcotics distribution ring that had operated there since 2010. In a separate case announced at that time, an additional 20 people allegedly helped traffic 9,000 kilograms of cocaine on to American Airlines flights leaving from that airport.

Price says he conducted security training at that airport about a decade ago. "Puerto Rico itself has always been known as a transit point for a lot of the narcotics moving north," he says. "It's always been easier to get something into Puerto Rico than it has into the continental United States."