Airline workers smuggled phony heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine through Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for distribution nationwide as part of an undercover sting that led to the indictment of 46 people Wednesday, federal officials said.
In the elaborate operation orchestrated by federal and local agents, airline employees used their knowledge, airport friends and security credentials to evade Transportation Security Administration scrutiny and to board planes to Chicago, Las Vegas, Newark, Phoenix, Wichita and San Francisco.
The indictment unsealed Wednesday alleges that four people were at the core of the smuggling operation, at least eight others laundered money paid by the undercover agents and others helped people carrying alleged drugs evade TSA security. Most of the defendants are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Airport officials said that none of those indicted are employed by the agency.
“DFW Airport was aware of the FBI sting operation and cooperated fully,” said airport spokesman David Magaña in a statement. “None of the people named in the indictment is employed by DFW Airport.”
Crimes of all sorts happen in airports, though would-be criminals must contend with ubiquitous surveillance cameras, a multitude of police officers, dogs sniffing about and legions of airport workers who are to report anything suspicious.
“We have periodically discovered criminal activity among the aviation worker population,” said TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger. There are ongoing investigations, and it’s a constant attempt to determine whether there is any criminal activity going on.”
With notable exceptions, most people arrested in airports are charged with petty crimes or with attempting to bring banned weapons onto airplanes.
Still, though, the TSA is tightening controls on airline and airport workers after the discovery in December that an airline baggage handler in Atlanta took part in an alleged conspiracy to smuggle guns — including assault rifles — to New York City.
FBI investigators determined the gun-running scheme had been fostered by airline workers whose identity badges gave them access to areas that are off-limits to passengers. The TSA responded by reducing access points to secure areas, increasing the frequency of criminal background checks, subjecting workers to random screenings and sending airport workers traveling as passengers through regular security checkpoints.
According to the indictment Wednesday, an undercover agent was told by an airline worker at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport that he could smuggle drugs on United and American Airlines flights.
On several subsequent occasions, the agent supplied the worker with purported drugs and they were transported by a relative of the worker who was on the employee flight list and exempt from scrutiny faced by other passengers.
Most of the defendants were charged with at least one count of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine. Eight defendants are charged with at least one count of money laundering or conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas.
The indictment also includes a forfeiture allegation that, upon conviction, would require each defendant to give up any property involved in or traceable to property involved in their crime.
The maximum penalty for each of the drug-trafficking conspiracy charges is life in prison and millions of dollars in fines. Each count of conspiracy to launder money carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Each substantive money laundering count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.