Arrests in drug ring at Kennedy

Several airline employees and workers at Kennedy Airport were arrested yesterday on charges they were part of an international drug ring that brought hundreds of pounds of cocaine, heroin and other narcotics into the United States from the Dominican Republic, officials said.

The bust centered on what federal officials said was the Washington Heights drug trafficking ring run by Henry Polanco, 31, who used his contacts in this country and in the Caribbean to transport the narcotics into JFK.

Polanco, who did not work at the airport, was one of 18 people charged in the case yesterday. The criminal complaint unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn charges that Polanco relied on airline employees here and abroad to conceal the drugs in luggage onboard international flights destined for JFK.

It was at the airport, prosecutors alleged, that airline employees supervised by Jorge Espinal, 38, a Delta Airlines worker, diverted the luggage containing narcotics to an area where they could be handled by other accomplices before the bags were inspected by Customs and other law enforcement officials. Espinal's job at Delta was to supervise the loading of cargo onto outbound flights, which gave him access to the airport ramp, a secure area where cargo and passengers are held before being inspected, said investigators.

Investigators charged that Espinal's girlfriend, Migdalia Sosa, 50, an employee of Aramark, the airline service company, served as a lookout for the operation.

In an arrest warrant affidavit, federal immigration agent Meredith Leung stated that because the ring used corrupt airline employees to facilitate the smuggling, the organizer entrusted them with kilogram-size quantities of drugs, much larger than those normally given to single couriers. According to prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, the two-year investigation led to seizures of more than 100 pounds of cocaine, more than 50 pounds of heroin and just over 7 pounds of Ecstasy.

Investigators arrested one of the suspects on charges he smuggled cash into the Dominican Republic. The amount wasn't specified.

Polanco, of Washington Heights, was being held without bail yesterday, said Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. A statement released yesterday by Nardoza stated that Delta Airlines had cooperated in the investigation.

By late yesterday, many of the remaining defendants were posting bail and being freed after initial court appearances before Magistrate-Judge Steven Gold.

If convicted on the main conspiracy charge, Polanco, Espinal, Sosa and several others face maximum sentences of life and $4 million in fines. The suspected couriers face terms of 20 years and fines of $1 million.