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2 ex-baggage handlers charged with drug trafficking at LAX

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Lighted pylons add color to the Century Boulevard entrance to Los Angeles International Airport.

LOS ANGELES » Federal agents arrested two former baggage handlers today on suspicion of trafficking several pounds of cocaine through Los Angeles International Airport, the second time in weeks that airline or airport employees have been accused of smuggling drugs there.

The Transportation Security Administration has focused on combatting security threats from “insiders,” which also include workers hired by contractors. Last month, authorities found 70 pounds of cocaine in the luggage of a JetBlue flight attendant after she was flagged for a random security screening.

In the most recent case, authorities seized about 2 pounds of cocaine from Alberto Preciado Gutierrez, 26, in an airport restroom in December, where he was trying to pass the drugs to a courier who had a plane ticket to New York. Adrian Ponce, 27, who was waiting for Preciado in a car nearby, was taken into custody.

The men were arrested Monday following a joint investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and local law enforcement and charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine through the airport.

Their attorneys have not returned messages seeking comment on the allegations.

Ponce said he worked with a large-scale distribution ring and had smuggled drugs with Preciado several times, according to authorities. He said they used Preciado’s status as a supervisor to bypass security screening and deliver cocaine samples to couriers.

Ponce told investigators that if buyers liked the sample, then large shipments of more than 220 pounds of cocaine would be driven to the East Coast and that he had driven the truck on more than one occasion.

The security risk from airline and airport employees became a bigger concern after several Delta Air Lines baggage handlers were arrested in December 2014. Prosecutors allege they smuggled guns, including an AK-47, from Atlanta to New York.

The TSA has said that fully screening all employees would cost too much. Instead, the agency has urged airports to increase random screenings of workers and to keep background checks up to date.

To prevent insider threats, authorities are limiting employee access to secure areas of LAX, Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon said Monday. The agency says officers are randomly inspecting employees coming in and out of restricted areas.

LAX police “take the possibility of an insider threat seriously and are creating an environment where every employee should expect they could be stopped and inspected at any time and any place while at the airport,” Gannon said in a statement.

JetBlue flight attendant Marsha Gay Reynolds surrendered to federal authorities after fleeing an LAX checkpoint on March 18, where authorities allege she left a bag with 70 pounds of cocaine.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger is scheduled to testify Wednesday before a U.S. Senate committee on airport security. In recent testimony, he promised federal lawmakers that the agency “will pay particular attention to the insider threat.”

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  • As many a novelist or scriptwriter has written, if you want to get contraband past airport security, simply threaten, extort, bribe or mislead a member of the flight or ground crews. Of the latter, does anyone here doubt any number of baggage handlers, caterers, mechanics and cleaning staff would willingly aid a smuggler or terrorist given the right incentive?

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