TSA Workers Arrested In $100 Million Drug-Smuggling Ring

By McCarton Ackerman 02/17/17

The drug ring is responsible for trafficking 20 tons of cocaine into the United States.

TSA worker

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers are responsible for confiscating illegal drugs at the airport, but over the years many have become part of the problem.

Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Vélez, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico, announced that 12 members of a TSA drug ring have been arrested and charged of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. Fox News reported that six of these individuals were either current and former TSA workers who worked as security and baggage screeners.

The drug-smuggling ring first launched in 1998 and was responsible for trafficking a staggering 20 tons of cocaine through security and into the U.S. The total cocaine shipments that made it through security have an estimated street value of $100 million. As many as five “mules,” or smugglers at a time would board a plane out of Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Puerto Rico, trafficking about 15 kilograms of cocaine per flight.

Javier Ortiz, a baggage handler with Airport Aviation Services, allegedly picked up the cocaine-filled suitcases and put them into X-ray machines monitored by the TSA suspects, where they were cleared for boarding. Prosecutors said Ortiz paid the TSA employees for their involvement and also took the bags to their designated flights.

“This investigation was initiated by TSA as part of its efforts to address employee misconduct and specific insider threat vulnerabilities,” said José Baquero, federal security director for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in a statement. "TSA has zero tolerance for employees engaged in criminal activity to facilitate contraband smuggling." If convicted, the suspects face anywhere from 10 years to life in prison.

However, this isn’t the first time TSA employees have been involved in drug trafficking. Four TSA screeners at LAX were arrested in April 2012 for accepting cash bribes to allow large amounts of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine through security checkpoints. U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. described the case as a “significant breakdown of the screening system through the conduct of individuals who placed greed above the nation's security needs.”

Three TSA agents and two cops were also arrested in Connecticut in September 2011 for accepting cash and gift card bribes to let oxycodone freely move around the country. They were among 20 people booked in the DEA sting known as “Operation Blue Coast,” which involved setting up a fake oxycodone sale.

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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.