During the immediate panic about airport security after the 9-11 attacks, some citizens took it upon themselves to prove how lax airport security was by smuggling weapons past the bored security officials at the gates. Several of these citizens made it through and boarded the plane. By announcing what they did, these citizens in effect performed a public service by showing how airports needed to beef up their security policies.
No such laudable motives, however, are applicable to the dozen current and former TSA administration and airport employees who were indicted on February 8 by a federal grand jury in Puerto Rico.
The defendants stand accused of having smuggling 20 tons of cocaine into the US–the largest governmental drug scandal in American history–over a twenty year period.
In a press release, the U.S. Department of Justice identified some of the defendants.
“Six current and former TSA employees, José Cruz-López, Luis Vázquez-Acevedo, Keila Carrasquillo, Carlos Rafael Adorno-Hiraldo, Antonio Vargas-Saavedra, and Daniel Cruz-Echevarría allegedly smuggled multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine while employed as TSA Officers at the San Juan airport. Their full time responsibilities were to provide security and baggage screening for checked and carry-on luggage that was to be placed on outbound flights from the LMMIA,” the release read.
From 1998 to 2016, the defendants allegedly used their positions and knowledge of TSA security measures to smuggle cocaine-filled suitcases past security checkpoints at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The procedure, according to the Justice Department, involved animals used as drug transports and at least two smugglers. Drugs carried by mules dropped off the drug-filled suitcases at check-in, where one of the alleged smugglers/security officials would then place the suitcase in the X-ray machines. From there, another alleged smuggler would take the undetected suitcase on board the airplane.
These arrests validate a congressional subcommittee report that portrayed airport security as vulnerable. The report came out the week before the defendants were indicted, and addressed the very problems that the defendants might have allegedly taken advantage of.
The report revealed that not only did the majority of airports fail to educate employees in security procedures, but they also failed to screen those who might be overseeing security for criminal purposes.
“At a time when we face increased threats from homegrown radicalization and lone-wolf terrorism, we must ensure that our airport access controls are strong and that we are doing all we can to mitigate the insider threat to aviation security,” Transportation and Protective Security Subcommittee Chairman John Katko said in a statement accompanying the report.
Some even say that airport jobs attract criminals.
Jeff Price, owner of Leading Edge Strategies, an airport security training company, said, “As somebody who’s a criminal, you’re going to gravitate to a job that’s going to enable your criminal activity.”
Price oversaw security training at the San Juan airport used for smuggling ten years ago. He said that there is a reason Puerto Rico is favored by smugglers.
“It’s always been easier to get something into Puerto Rico than it has into the continental United States,” Price said. “Puerto Rico itself has always been known as a transit point for a lot of narcotics moving north.”
The San Juan airport has been under federal government scrutiny as a possible avenue for drug smuggling in the past.
In 2012, 45 individuals were indicted for being allegedly part of a drug smuggling ring as well as laundering money out of the US, as announced in a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The indictment alleges that from in or around 2010 until May 2012, members of the enterprise and their associates carried kilograms of cocaine into the airport using various methods including: in backpacks/bags, hidden on their person, or in official work vehicles. Once in the secured area, they would transfer the kilograms of cocaine onto commercial aircrafts headed to the continental United States,” the release read.
In another case, 20 people were indicted for allegedly trafficking 9,000 kilos of cocaine on board American Airline flights departing the San Juan airport.
After the indictment was announced on February 8, TSA security in San Juan quickly tried to reassure the public.
“TSA has zero tolerance for employees engaged in criminal activity to facilitate contraband smuggling,” said José Baquero, the federal security director for Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin islands on February 8.
But Price stated that the problem of trafficking drugs out of airports has gone on a long time and will probably continue.
“Unfortunately, this stuff’s been going around for really as long as there’s been commercial aviation,” he said.
Still, the ease and longevity of how the ring was able to infiltrate TSA security and commit the largest drug governmental scandal in American history doesn’t look good for those tasked with protecting the country from terrorism.
The ring began during the Bill Clinton administration, in 1998. That the ring was able to smuggle cocaine in with ease validates the Republican charge that Clinton’s lax security measures assured 9-11.
But it doesn’t look good for the subsequent administration of George W. Bush, either. One could make the claim that cocaine was not a terrorist weapon but a money-making scheme for criminals, not terrorists. But it was not only box cutters and knives and wooden guns that were a threat needing to be intercepted by an airline security official at a checkpoint actually doing their jobs. Anthrax, a powder like cocaine, could have been smuggled out of Puerto Rico and into American mailboxes as easily as cocaine.
Worse, Bush bailed out an airline industry that in at least one instance was full of drug smugglers.
The Obama administration is culpable as well. Repeatedly downplaying the threat of terrorism, the administration saw no need to beef up airport security despite warnings from the president’s own Justice Department as far back as 2012.
Republicans are often proven right that government doesn’t work. But government can be made more efficient, especially when there is so much more at stake than just cocaine-sniffing.