Bust of Decade-Long Airline Narco-trafficking Ring Raises Questions About Security
|by Anthony L. Kimery|
|Thursday, 17 September 2009|
|‘And inside these suitcases … could just have easily been put bombs, bomb-making components …’Past and present US counterterror authorities told HSToday.us Wednesday that the arrest of 23 individuals indicted for drug trafficking who allegedly were part of a narco-smuggling ring of American Airlines employees in the US and Latin America for nearly a decade indicates serious gaps in airline security – especially employee screening and monitoring.According to the San Juan, Puerto Rico US Attorney, this drug trafficking organization – which allegedly had smuggled into the country an estimated $20 million in cocaine – was lead by defendant Wilfredo Rodriguez Rosado, and began operating in or about 1999. The operation involved “an organized … group of American Airlines employees to ensure that suitcases loaded with kilograms of cocaine were smuggled into American Airlines aircrafts and transported to different cities in the continental United States.”US Attorney for Puerto Rico, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez, stated that “the use of commercial aircraft to smuggle narcotics in and out of Puerto Rico also creates a serious threat to our national security.”Drug Enforcement Administration officials acknowledged that the narco-trafficking ring exploited ”vulnerabilities in our airports.”“Inside these suitcases [in which cocaine was smuggled] – maybe even cargo containers being put onboard the airliners – could just have easily been put bombs, bomb-making components or anything else that terrorists wanted to smuggle into the United States,” said a senior counterterror official on background. “We were lucky that this organization wasn’t used to do just that given the interlocking relationships between drug traffickers and terrorists.”Homeland Security Today reported in August that terrorist organizations with a presence in Central America in particular have joined forces with Mexico’s narco-cartels to smuggle members of these terrorists groups in and out of the region, and into the US.The busted ring of airline baggage handlers appears to have been connected to narco-traffickers operating in the Central American region. As Homeland Security Today earlier reported, most of the cocaine that comes out of the region is under the control of Mexico’s narco-cartels, who have forged alliances with terrorist facilitators in the region, according to a report prepared for the Defense Department.“Every year huge quantities of illegal narcotics flow into this country as do many thousands of undocumented aliens. When you have holes in your border security that huge, I think you are kidding yourself if you think that you have any real ability to prevent the movement of terrorist personnel and weapons into the United States,” HSToday.us was told by Charles Faddis, a career CIA counterterrorist who headed a WMD terrorism section at the Agency’s National Counterterrorism Center when he retired last year.“If Al Qaeda wants to move a container containing a nuclear weapon into this country, there is no necessity whatsoever for that organization to create a mechanism for doing that. All that is necessary is that the right people, narcotics trafficers or human smugglers, get paid the right amount of money. They will do the rest,” Faddis said.Other counterterror officials HSToday.us spoke to agreed, but pointed out that the ease in which the American Airline baggage handlers trafficking ring had been able to work for so long indicated to them that “serious problems remain in personnel screening and monitoring. These guys could just have easily put a bomb in one of these suitcases,” one said.
Another said he’s remained concerned “for some time” that terrorist organizations could, “over time,” infiltrate members into various “on site” airport positions that could pose a major threat risk to passenger planes.
“What about the level of screening that is done for aircraft servicing personnel between flights?” he asked. “These are all areas that I believe we need to be taking another hard look at.”
American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said in a statement that “as a company, we hope that the actions of a few employees don’t reflect negatively on the tens of thousands of ethical American Airlines employees who work hard to serve the public daily.”
While the vast majority of all airline workers are ethical, most authorities agreed, they said this latest bust indicates that it only takes a few to create a serious threat to airline security if such an operation was to be used by terrorists.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration issued an “interim final rule” to meet the congressional mandate to screen 100 percent of all cargo prior to being loaded onto passenger airliners. However, the new rule does not apply to cargo loaded onto US or foreign aircraft outside the US. The cocaine that allegedly was smuggled into the US onboard American Airlines passenger aircraft by baggage handling personnel was loaded onto the jetliners outside the continental US, according to federal authorities who investigated the smuggling ring.