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Two-Year Government Sting Ends with Dozens Arrested

By Frank Swoboda
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Dozens of airline employees were arrested Wednesday on drug smuggling charges in a series of predawn raids at their homes by federal agents. The arrests ended a two-year government sting operation at Miami International Airport targeting ramp workers who would smuggle anything from cocaine to hand grenades from Latin America to cities in the northeastern United States.

The sting, dubbed “Operation Ramp Rat” by the government, focused on ramp workers at American Airlines -- who service the airplane on the ground, pumping gas and loading baggage -- and food handlers employed by Lufthansa Service Sky Chefs. Also arrested were an employee of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, one from the Agriculture Department and a part-time deputy from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

American is the largest U.S. airline serving Latin America. Officials in Colombia said that it was also the airline used by 10 Colombians arrested in Cali last weekend and charged with smuggling more than half a ton of cocaine and heroin to Miami.

The sting operation was launched in April 1997, after informants told the Drug Enforcement Agency that airline employees were involved in smuggling. Investigators became interested in Sky Chefs after discovering a shipment of heroin that was smuggled from Colombia in coffee packets. The packets were inadvertently used to make coffee that was served to the plane’s pilot, who complained it tasted weak.

The operation resulted in the indictments of 58 individuals; by late Wednesday, 48 of them had been arrested in raids that began at 4 a.m. At least six of those arrested were picked up on indictments handed up in New York in a separate case.

Brett Eaton, spokesman for the DEA in Miami, said there were so many arrests that at one point the agency had to borrow a bus from the marshal’s service to hold prisoners as they waited to be booked and fingerprinted.

Over the course of the sting, federal agents posing as drug dealers or gun smugglers hid 660 pounds of fake cocaine and an unknown number of guns on planes and in baggage from Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador to Miami. The sting involved 37 smuggling transactions in all.

Once the drugs or guns were inside the country, the airline employees would use their security clearances to gain access to the contraband on the aircraft and to circumvent customs and other airport security. They then would either deliver the contraband to waiting undercover agents in Miami, or carry it to a departure terminal and use their free flight benefits to transport it to northeastern cities.