NEW YORK – Federal prosecutors dismantled a major international drug trafficking operation Tuesday, charging 18 airline workers with helping smuggle heroin and cocaine through John F. Kennedy International Airport.
According to prosecutors, airport workers in the Dominican Republic concealed the drugs in luggage bound for New York, where a group of airline employees at JFK retrieved the packages, diverting them to a safe area before the bags could be inspected.
The plot was uncovered after a two year investigation during which afederal gents seized more than 46 kilograms of cocaine, 25 kilograms of heroin, and 3 kilograms of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, according to a complaint unsealed in federal court in New York Tuesday.
In addition to drugs, the defendants were also smuggling cash, the complaint alleged.
Of the 18 charged in the scheme, 10 worked at JFK, including seven employees of Delta Airlines and one employee of American Airlines.
Authorities said the trafficking scheme was organized and headed by Henry Polanco, 31, who ran the operation out of the Washington Heights section of New York. Polanco, the complaint alleged, arranged for drug suppliers in the Dominican Republic to provide him with large quantities of cocaine and heroin, and relied on corrupt employees at JFK to get the drugs into the U.S.
Prosecutors allege that airport workers in the Dominican Republic would conceal narcotics in luggage on international commercial flights bound for JFK. In New York, JFK workers supervised by Jorge Espinal, 38, would retrieve the bags. Delta Airlines employee Erik Erazo, 29, would divert the luggage to avoid customs inspections while Espinals' girlfriend, Amarak employee Migdalia Sosa, 50, would act as a look-out, alerting Espinal and Erazo of law enforcement activity at the airport. Espinal and Erazo would then deliver the drugs to other members of the organization for distribution.
Authorities used telephone wire taps to identify the suspects and interrupt the operation, the complaint said.
During one of these operations, in August, 2007, federal agents intercepted a drug supplier who had alerted Polanco that a courier carrying drugs was enroute from the Dominican Republic to New York. Customs and Border Protection officers and ICE agents went to meet the courier at a secure corridor where international passengers enter Customs for inspection at JFK.
Agents encountered Espinal and Erazo in the area, who then contacted Polanco to warn him that law enforcement was in the area. Espinal and Erazo asked Polanco to instruct the courier to leave the drugs on the plane, but Polanco directed the courier to enter the airport with the durgs. Agents arrested the courier carrying more than 10 kilograms of cocaine and two kilograms of heroin in a suitcase.
Polanco, Espinal, Erazo, Sosa and six other defendants were charged with conspiracy to import a controlled substance, and if convicted, each face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a $4 million fine.
Erazo, and seven other defendants not charged with importing the drugs, were charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, and if convicted, each face a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years and a $1million fine.
Espinal and one additional suspect, Victor Perez, were charged with conspiracy to engage in bulk cash smuggling, and if convicted, each face a maximum term of imprisonment of five years and a $250,000 fine.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.