NEW YORK – A lost-luggage handler ran an Ecuador-to-New York smuggling ring that disguised drugs in chocolates and cocaine-soaked scuba diving certificates, and he stole valuables out of flyers' misplaced bags that he was hired to deliver, authorities said Tuesday.
Jorge Guerrero arranged to ship innocent-looking but drug-laden packages on cargo planes from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to New York's Kennedy Airport, authorities said as Guerrero, his wife and four others pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and other charges. The packages went to parcel-delivery companies, where the conspirators picked them up, authorities said.
Seized shipments read like a bizarre shopping list: sugar and oatmeal cookies packed atop a pound of cocaine, chocolate candies laced with half a pound of heroin, and empanadas -- a Latin American savory pastry -- stuffed with over three pounds of cocaine, all in professional-looking packages as if bound for store shelves, according to authorities.
Also listed was a stack of diving course diplomas that had been drenched in more than three pounds of cocaine, which was apparently to be extracted later.
Guerrero sometimes picked up the packages while on his trips for a baggage-delivery company, and he also exploited his job to mine jewelry, electronics and other items from the lost luggage to resell, authorities said.
"The Guerrero organization rarely overlooked an opportunity to earn a dishonest dollar," Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said in a release. Her office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did the investigation.
Guerrero, 39, has worked for seven to 10 years for a Queens-based lost-luggage company, said his lawyer, Franklin Rothman. The company, which isn't charged in the case, declined to comment.
"Whatever this investigation yields, we haven't heard about the drugs being recovered from (Guerrero's) home," Rothman said.
Guerrero's wife, Cecilia, 33, was an "active partner" and money manager in his smuggling scheme, Assistant District Attorney William Novak said.
Her lawyer, Bryan Konoski, argued that the charges against her don't make her out to be a major player.
"There's no allegation that she's out there wrapping up drugs into chocolate bars" or making drug deals, he said.
The Guerreros have been married for 17 years and have three children, ranging from 4 to 12, who are in relatives' care now, Konoski said. She is an Ecuadorean citizen. He is a U.S. citizen originally from Ecuador.
The drugs sell for about 10 times as much in the U.S. as they do in Ecuador, while the stolen clothes and electronics stood to fetch more in Ecuador than they do here, authorities said.
More than 50 handbags bearing such names as Louis Vuitton and Prada, 50 watches, 30 pairs of sunglasses by designers including Versace and Dior, 15 cameras, and other pricey goods were found at Guerrero's Queens home, along with three ledgers logging items he had fished from luggage and sold, authorities said.