The Department of Justice announced Monday that 12 former and current TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) employees were indicted for smuggling 20 tons, or $100 million worth of cocaine out of Puerto Rico over the course of an 18-year operation. This is not the first time TSA agents have been caught running drugs or breaking other laws.
According to a DOJ press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico:
“During the course of the conspiracy, the defendants smuggled suitcases, each containing at least 8 to 15 kilograms of cocaine, through the TSA security system at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (LMMIA). Sometimes as many as five mules were used on each flight, with each mule checking-in up to two suitcases. From 1998 through 2016, the defendants helped smuggle approximately 20 tons of cocaine through LMMIA.”
Though initial reports indicated the operation spanned from 2008 to 2016 and moved 1,500 kilograms of cocaine, the ongoing investigation apparently unearthed an additional ten years of misconduct (considering the TSA has only existed since 2001, Anti-Media has contacted the DOJ for clarification on how the operation worked from 1998-2001 and will update this article should they respond).
The Puerto Rican TSA agents were indicted by a federal grand jury on February 8 and charged with “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine,” according to Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico.
According to DOJ press release, six current and former employees, José Cruz-López, Luis Vázquez-Acevedo, Keila Carrasquillo, Carlos Rafael Adorno-Hiraldo, Antonio Vargas-Saavedra, and Daniel Cruz-Echevarría worked as TSA screeners who monitored both checked and carry-on luggage. They “allegedly smuggled multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine while employed as TSA Officers at the San Juan airport.”
Luis Vázquez-Acevedo and two other defendants acted as facilitators between TSA employees and the cocaine supplier, an airport security employee. Another defendant, Javier Ortiz, worked for the Airport Aviation Services as a baggage handler and ramp employee. He would “pick up suitcases he know contained cocaine from the mules at the airline check in counter” and place the suitcases into X-ray machines manned by TSA agents involved in the scheme. He would then take the suitcases to their designated flights, “making sure no narcotic K-9 unit or law enforcement personnel were present when the suitcase went from the checkpoint to the airplane.” Ortiz would then place a call to the drug trafficking organization, and mules would then board the plane.
The investigation into this drug trafficking operation was initiated by the TSA and the DEA. The two agencies are also collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Marshals, and the police of Puerto Rico.
Though it appears on the surface that the agencies in charge are taking swift action to punish the perpetrators, the case reveals a deeper issue with current airport security. First, it took the TSA over a decade to discover the operation. Officials expressed enthusiasm that they successfully used the AirTat initiative, a multi-agency project launched in 2015 with the goal of targeting transnational crime. Still, it took another two years to discover an elaborate, established drug trafficking ring reliant on employees within the very government agency tasked with weeding out crime.
This is hardly the first time TSA agents have been caught smuggling drugs. In 2016, a Charlotte, North Carolina, agent was caught smuggling narcotics. In 2015, an agent at Oakland International Airport was discovered smuggling marijuana. In 2014, an agent at Los Angeles International Airport was sentenced for participating in a drug trafficking ring.
The agents indicted in the Puerto Rico case face a minimum of ten years in prison for their “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.” Though there is no shortage of evidence that TSA agents are frequently incompetent and often criminal — from stealing passengers’ luggage to sexually harassing travelers — the broader takeaway of the ongoing investigation and prosecution is the failure of the war on drugs.
Regardless of how much effort government agencies exert in their attempts to stem the flow of narcotics, their missions undoubtedly come up short and fail to curb demand for drugs or efforts to deliver them.