Air Transport World

Gotcha! Drug lords find airlines fighting back. (includes related article about Transportes Aereos Mercantiles Panamericano's anti-drug efforts) (Cover Story)

At nearly $62 million, it was the largest civil penalty the U.S. Customs Service ever levied against an airline. The discovery of almost two tons of cocaine on board TAMPA (Transportes Aereos Mercantiles Panamericano), a Colombian cargo carrier, was going to cost that carrier $1,000 an ounce.

Had the incident occurred a year or so earlier, the fine would have been less than $200,000.

But TAMPA was caught up in an escalated campaign to halt the shipment of drugs into the U.S. on commercial airlines, a practice that had become commonplace; airlines out of South America providing virtually unlimited free passage for drugs at levels reaching 200-300 lb. per day.

Although most of the drugs got through, seizures were made on a regular basis. * Avianca was caught with more than 2,400 lb. of cocaine packed in flower boxes. * ARCA of Colombia was found with 384 lb. of cocaine, also hidden in flower boxes. A year later, it was caught with 74 lb. of cocaine, again in a shipment of flowers. * Aero-condor was caught with a 286-lb. box of cocaine in the belly of an aircraft, while another Latin American carrier had more than a ton of coke hidden inside a stack of cargo skids. * Inair of Panaina brought in 2,500 lb. of cocaine in four freezer chests buried in the center of four pallets of perfume goods. That flight was Inair's last. The plane was confiscated and the airline went out of business rather than pay the penalty to get it back. * Eastern Airlines suffered continual aircraft seizures for drugs smuggled in as unmanifested cargo or hidden inside the structure of the aircraft. In one instance, some of its employees were sent to prison.

Even after Eastern shut down, a cleanup crew from an airline that had bought one of its 727s found two kilos of drugs left behind by dealers who were unable to get to the cache.

Thus, by the time 3,900 lb. of cocaine was discovered in a TAMPA shipment of clothing from Colombia, U.S. Customs, backed by Congress, had adopted a "get tough" attitude--including the increase of penalty assessment from $50 to $1,000 an ounce.

However, based on findings that steps to prevent smuggling had been taken, Customs reduced the penalty greatly (see box).

As one of the largest all-cargo carriers operating into Miami out of Colombia, TAMPA is a prime candidate for drug smugglers. in presenting its security program to Customs, it worked out an agreement with die agency on what would be an acceptable program for protection both against the smugglers and future penalties.

That agreement made TAMPA one of the first cargo airlines to be part of what became the "Super Carrier" program.

By the late 1970s, the profits from cocaine had risen to the point where drug lords needed to import the narcotic in commercial quantities, with the speed of aircraft preferred over ocean-going vessels.

"It was fairly simple for them to get it in," said Robert C. (Bobby) Gomez, the U.S. Customs asst. district director, inspection and Control unit in Miami. "If you needed to bring in 200 lb. of cocaine from Colombia, you put it on a Colombian cargo aircraft and you put a big, bright red star on it. Then, when the aircraft landed, you had someone there with access to the aircraft, who simply removed it."

To fight back, Customs formed a Tactical Enforcement Support Team (TEST), later changed to the Contraband Enforcement Team (CET). This team was given the mandate to interdict commercial quantities of narcotics arriving in air and sea cargo.

"We started with only eight inspectors and two dogs, having to deal with about 80 flights per day, plus the seaport," Gomez said. …

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