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Dozens of American Airlines workers arrested in drug probe

Updated:
MIAMI (AP) -- Dozens of American Airlines employees and contract
workers were arrested today in a federal investigation into a drug
ring that authorities said used the airline's planes to smuggle
drugs into the United States.

Undercover agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms also approached suspects about shipping guns and
military-style explosives in the sting.

"What they had was a very elaborate scheme for aiding in the
distribution of narcotics and weapons," said AFT spokesman Ed
Halley. "For a price these individuals would bypass security and
deliver anything that was paid for to a person that was paying for
it."

By mid-morning, at least 37 people had been arrested at home and
a few were caught at Miami International Airport. Fifty-eight
people were named in multiple sealed indictments resulting from the
investigation called Operation Ramp Rat, said Brent Eaton, a
federal Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman.

The drugs, which included cocaine and marijuana, were taken to
points including Philadelphia and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Eaton said
some contraband was smuggled in airline food trays, and the people
arrested included employees of American contractors such as
Lufthansa Sky Chefs.

American Airlines, the largest carrier servicing Latin America,
issued a statement from its corporate headquarters in Fort Worth,
Texas, saying the company has cooperated in the investigation.

"While we are disturbed that a small group of employees were
part of this smuggling ring, their activities have been under
federal government and company surveillance for quite some time,"
the statement said.

The company was not expecting any disruption of service,
spokeswoman Martha Pantin said.

The people indicted were mainly ramp workers and baggage
handlers, agents said. Two U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
agents were arrested, and a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy who
worked part time as a baggage handler was indicted, Eaton said.

No one in management was arrested, and no American pilots or
flight attendants were indicted, he said.

"Because it was an undercover operation, it's hard to judge,
but they were making lots of money doing this, more than their
salaries," Eaton said.

ATF agents said suspects used their security clearances to get
drugs, handguns and explosives provided by the agents onto airport
ramps, where it was loaded onto planes, Halley said.

"In the minds of these violators they were transporting the
real thing," Halley said. "Greed is the bottom line there. They
did it all for a price."

Six people also were arrested in eastern New York state in a
separate but related case, Eaton said, but provided no details.

Fifteen indictments were to be unsealed later today at the U.S.
Attorney's office and those arrested were expected to make their
first court appearances.

Drug agents in Puerto Rico arrested an American Airlines ramp
supervisor in February on charges of trying to smuggle 205 pounds
of cocaine into the United States.

In July 1997, federal agents in Miami arrested six American
Airlines mechanics suspected of smuggling a half-ton of cocaine and
heroin into the United States aboard jetliners by stashing the
drugs behind cabin walls and ceiling panels and in the cockpit
electronics.

Those arrests came a day after 12 Delta Air Lines employees in
Puerto Rico were indicted on charges of helping smuggle nearly $1
billion worth of cocaine for Colombia's Cali cartel.

In March 1996, mechanics conducting an overnight maintenance
check on an American Airlines jet in Dallas found 64 pounds of
cocaine stuffed into the wall panels of the Boeing 757's cockpit.

The jet had made stops in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and
several U.S. cities before the drugs were discovered.



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