LAX Bag Handlers Sentenced For Airport Drug Smuggling Ring

By McCarton Ackerman 01/28/14

Baggage handlers in the nation's biggest international airports have used their employee status to routinely bypass security to smuggle drugs.

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Not all airport security is overly invasive: a bag handler at LAX is expected to receive up to five years in prison after helping to bring suitcases filled with drugs onto cross-country flights. Ruben Mendoza pleaded guilty to conspiracy to enter restricted airport areas, while fellow Delta Air Lines bag handlers Ulysses Blunston and Peter Contreras also pleaded guilty to the same charges; Burnston and Contreras are each expected to serve one year in prison.

Mendoza facilitated taking backpacks of heroin and cocaine through an employee entrance and thereby not subjecting them to security requirements. The bags were then loaded onto already screened checked luggage, placed onto east coast flights, picked up by passengers at the final destination, and finally sold or distributed. It’s unclear how much Mendoza was paid for his role in the drug smuggling ring, but Blunston told police he was paid $1,000 per bag and handled nearly a dozen of them before being busted.

But sometimes it’s unsuspecting passengers are who victims in these drug operations. The New York Post revealed in 2011 that several international travelers at JFK Airport were detained after Customs officers discovered drugs placed in their bags by corrupt airport employees. The bags were marked so that drug gang operators could grab the drugs before the passenger picked up their luggage, but there have been instances where this did not go to plan. Queens native Roger Levans sued Delta after his luggage lock was removed and Customs inspectors founds bricks of cocaine inside his suitcase; the charges were dropped after Brooklyn prosecutors determined he had no involvement. 

“Their goal is to get the drugs into the U.S. When they select somebody, they could care less how many victims there are,” said Martin Ficke, a former special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New York office. “If someone ends up being incarcerated, they could care less.” During a separate smuggling trial, a former JFK baggage handler revealed that he had made over $400,000 smuggling drugs through the airport.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.