Federal agents broke up a network of cargo workers and others accused of participating in a Latin American drug-smuggling conspiracy. Thirteen more suspects are still being sought.
Once again, drug smugglers have tapped into Miami International Airport, teaming up with cargo workers to move shipments on and off Latin Amerian flights, authorities say.
Federal agents Thursday arrested 15 suspects on charges of importing multi-kilogram loads of cocaine and heroin on commercial cargo flights from Colombia, Panama and Venezuela.
An additional 13 targets are still at large in South Florida or outside the country.
A total of 28 defendants -- including numerous cargo workers at MIA -- are charged in five drug-trafficking conspiracy indictments unsealed by the U.S. Attorney's Office this week. The indictments allege the defendants had smuggled drugs through the airport since 2006.
According to authorities, the latest crackdown by Immigration and Customs Enforcement resulted from a five-year investigation into international traffickers and MIA cargo workers who use their official airport access to divert drugs from the U.S. customs inspection area.
ICE agents seized a total of 204 kilos of cocaine, four kilos of heroin and $74,000 in the latest case, authorities said.
The last major drug bust at MIA came in 2007 when ICE agents shut down a drug pipeline flowing from South America after arresting a dozen MIA cargo workers who worked for various airlines and several other traffickers.
At mid-decade, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration broke up an elaborate network of Haitian police officers, politicians and American Airlines employees who schemed to smuggle Colombian cocaine on commercial passenger flights into South Florida.
And before that, there was the unforgettable ``Operation Ramp Rats'' case at MIA.
In the summer of 1999, federal prosecutors charged almost five dozen people -- including 30 American Airline baggage handlers and ground crew along with 13 Sky Chef workers.
In a sting operation, they were accused of hiding what they thought was cocaine in food carts, garbage bags and carry-on luggage, taking advantage of their easy access to secure areas by flashing their ID badges.
Thursday's arrests were made by ICE and DEA agents at the airport and defendants' residences in Miami-Dade County.
In one arrest at a Hialeah home, SWAT team members accompanied agents because the target had a violent criminal history, including assaulting a law enforcement officer.
Those arrested were held at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, and are scheduled to have their first appearances in federal court Friday.
BY JAY WEAVER
Posted on Thursday, 08.12.10