Airport to Screen Workers After Guns, Drugs Smuggled Onto Florida Flight

Orlando International Airport will begin screening all employees who enter secure areas after baggage handlers were accused of smuggling guns aboard a commercial airliner last week.

Last week 13 handguns, one assault rifle and 8 pounds of marijuana made it onto a flight in Florida and were not seized until the plane landed in Puerto Rico.

The security change follows lengthy meetings involving airport officials, the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown.

"This is the No. 1 tourist destination in the world," Brown told the Orlando Sentinel for a story Tuesday. "I want full confidence in the system."

TSA officials on Tuesday were also expected to announce a "security surge" at Orlando and three other Florida international airports.

More than 160 security officers, aviation inspectors, federal air marshals and others were to be dispatched to Orlando, Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. A fifth airport, the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was also included in the safety plan.

TSA officials said it was a first step.

The agency was criticized last week after law enforcement officials made four arrests in connection with a drug-smuggling ring that bypassed Orlando airport security to send guns and drugs to Puerto Rico.

Investigators said two airline baggage handlers used their employee uniforms and airport identification cards to bypass security screeners and enter restricted areas with a bag containing the guns and drugs and board the commercial Delta Air Lines flight Monday, according to court documents.

The Orlando Police Department received a tip from an anonymous person that led authorities to investigate the men, said Carlos Baixauli, a Miami-based special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Security screeners questioned Zabdiel J. Santiago Balaguer, 22, when he was taken off the plane Monday, but court documents said he was released when no weapons or drugs were found on him.

Thomas Anthony Munoz, 22, was arrested in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when he got off the plane at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. Inside the duffel bag he was carrying, authorities found 13 handguns, one assault rifle and eight clear bags containing a total of 8 pounds of marijuana, Baixauli said.

Balaguer was arrested last week. Munoz and Balaguer were charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and possessing firearms in interstate commerce during a drug trafficking offense, court documents said.

Balaguer allegedly acted as a middle man between Munoz and a connection in Puerto Rico as part of a weapons and drugs scheme, authorities said.

Balaguer delivered guns and drugs to Puerto Rico several times himself and offered to pay Munoz as much as $5,000 to make the delivery to Puerto Rico, court documents assert. The contact in Puerto Rico had wired more than $1,800 to Balaguer last week, which was used to buy the guns and drugs, according to a federal agent's affidavit.

Balaguer remained in custody Thursday in the Orange County Jail. It was not clear when Munoz would be transported to Florida. It also was not known if the connection in Puerto Rico was in custody.

Stephen Langs, the public defender representing Balaguer, said on Thursday his client plans to plead not guilty.

"We'll see what the government thinks it has," said Langs, who declined to go into more detail about the case.

It was not clear if Munoz had an attorney.

Munoz and Balaguer worked for Comair, an Erlanger, Ky.-based subsidiary of Delta. Both passed federal background checks before employment, Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said.

Both men have been suspended from their jobs pending the investigation, Marx said.