Apr. 20 -- Federal authorities said they shut down a drug pipeline flowing from South America to Miami International Airport and Port Everglades Thursday when they arrested a dozen local cargo workers and several others charged in a conspiracy indictment.
Agents busted 18 defendants in South Florida and elsewhere, plus another six drug-trafficking suspects in Colombia, prosecutors said. Five defendants remain at large.
The cargo employees were not employed by county-owned MIA but worked for various airlines.
Still, the investigation underscores that no matter how much the U.S. government devotes to airport security in the post-9/11 era, traffickers can pierce the shield by corrupting cargo workers, authorities said.
"You clearly had conspirators on the inside to help that take place," U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said of the drug operation. "That raises alarms about what may or may not be smuggled through these channels."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Anthony Mangione said: "Certainly anyone using the airport in this manner threatens the security of the United States."
Announcement of the indictment came the same day that MIA's security and communications chief tried to assure Congress at a hearing in Washington that MIA was secure. She noted the airport had adopted more thorough criminal background checks because of previous narcotics cases involving corrupt MIA workers -- including one operation dubbed "ramp rat."
"In many ways, MIA was ahead of its time in terms of security measures," Lauren Stover said in written testimony to a transportation security panel of the House Homeland Security Committee.
About 30,000 people work at the airport, including 27,000 with access to restricted areas, Stover said.
The international drug investigation, which netted various seizures totaling 521 pounds of cocaine and 81 pounds of heroin, dates to 2002.
According to court papers, federal agents made their first seizure in June 2002 at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. They discovered a cargo container filled with furniture that concealed more than 100 pounds of cocaine and 17 pounds of heroin.
Three years later, agents said they made two more major seizures -- totaling about 200 pounds of cocaine at MIA -- connected to the alleged operation.
Drug Enforcement Administration and ICE agents said the operation relied on cargo workers who smuggled the drugs through MIA and Port Everglades.
Almost all of the workers had jobs in a 536,250-square-foot cargo warehouse and aircraft area commonly called "Western U," because the facility forms the shape of that letter. It can serve up to 20 domestic and international cargo flights at a time.
"The defendants, based in Miami regularly, assist[ed] one another in the drug trafficking activities through counter-surveillance, assisting on the cargo warehouse ramp pulling narcotics and/or passing information about planes and loads," according to court papers filed with the indictment.
The indictment charged 27 defendants mainly with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and heroin. Separately, five of the drug defendants and two others were charged in a credit card fraud indictment linked to the narcotics probe.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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