Cocaine Smuggling Ring Bust Leads to TSA Employee Arrests

In early February 2017, a dozen employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were fired for their apparent involvement in a Puerto Rico cocaine smuggling ring, according to the United States Attorney’s Office. The statement released by the Attorney’s Office alleges that the employees were responsible for assisting the smuggling of over twenty tons of cocaine over the course of eighteen years, beginning in 1998 and lasting until 2016. The cocaine smuggling ring was uncovered thanks to an ongoing investigation being conducted by the NSA which aims to find and eradicate insider threats and reduce misconduct among employees.

According to the statement released by the Attorney’s Office, the operation involved smuggling suitcases filled with cocaine through security and onto international flights. The complaint states that in some instances, as many as five mules – people carrying the drug-filled suitcases – could be on a single airplane. A half-dozen current and former TSA employees have been indicted for allegedly smuggling the drug-filled suitcases through x-ray checkpoints and ensuring they made it onto the plane without issue.

Other airport employees have been charged with various crimes related to the cocaine smuggling, as well. One, an employee of Airport Aviation Services, allegedly paid off the TSA employees so that they would allow the suitcases to pass through security and ensure they made it to the desired aircraft, in addition to clearing the mules who were meant to carry the suitcase while on the plane. In a statement released by Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, Puerto Rico’s U.S. Attorney declared that the arrests indicate how successful the AirTAT initiative has been in identifying and apprehending those involved in illicit activities.

The arrests come after the TSA has faced scrutiny in the past years, such as an instance in 2015 in which a gun smuggling operation was discovered at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. In an effort to curb illegal activities at airports, Congress used an aviation bill passed last year to incorporate language that increased the number of random airport employee inspections, with an eye toward curtailing any insider illegal activity at airports. However, a two-year study conducted by the House’s Homeland Security Committee determined that the majority of American airports still lack sufficient security screening procedures for TSA and other airport employees.

The report compiled by the House’s Homeland Security Committee determined that there were many inconsistencies across airports which lead to problems with internal security. The chairman of the committee, Representative John Katko from New York, said that increasing threats from “lone-wolf terrorism” and “homegrown radicalization” meant that more stringent regulations and security procedures for TSA and airport employees were increasingly necessary.

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