TSA employees arrested for cocaine smuggling operation in Puerto Rico

A dozen airport and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees have been arrested for their alleged involvement in a massive cocaine smuggling operation in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Monday.

The defendants are accused of helping smuggle approximately 20 tons of cocaine through Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport over the course of 18 years, from 1998 to 2016.

The investigation was initiated by the TSA as part of an ongoing effort to target employee misconduct and reduce insider threats.

The operation allegedly involved employees smuggling suitcases through TSA checkpoints at the airport and onto flights, with as many as five mules on some flights and with each mule checking two suitcases in some cases.

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Six current and former TSA screening officers have been indicted in the case for their alleged role in smuggling cocaine through X-ray machines and onto airplanes without detection.

An Airport Aviation Services worker, who was a baggage handler and ramp employee, is charged with paying TSA employees to clear the suitcases stuffed with cocaine; taking the suitcases to their designated flights; and giving a drug trafficking organization member the “all clear” for mules to board the plane.

“These individuals were involved in a conspiracy to traffic massive quantities of illegal narcotics to the continental United States,” Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico, said in a statement. “These arrests demonstrate the success of the AirTAT initiative, which has successfully allocated a dedicated group of state and federal law enforcement officers, whose mission is to ensure that our airports are not used in the drug traffickers’ illicit businesses.”

The Drug Enforcement Agency is in charge of the investigation, in collaboration with the FBI, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Marshals and Puerto Rican police.

The TSA has dealt with a number of high-profile security lapses at airports in recent years, including a gun-smuggling operation uncovered at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 2015.

Congress has sought to tackle insider threats and vulnerabilities at airports. Lawmakers attached language to an aviation bill last year to increase random inspections of airport workers at secure area access points, require the TSA to conduct a review of the insider threat posed by airport employees and enhance employee vetting and eligibility requirements.

But a two-year investigation from the House Homeland Security Committee found that most airports still lack full employee screening procedures at secure access points. 

The report, released last week, also discovered inconsistencies across the aviation system in how airport and security officials educate their credentialed populations about using their access and reporting suspicious activities.

“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,” said Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security panel's Transportation and Protective Security Subcommittee.