Two former baggage handlers at Los Angeles International Airport were arrested Monday on suspicion of trafficking several pounds of cocaine through the southern California hub.
Investigators allege that Adrian Ponce, 27, and Alberto Preciado Gutierrez, 26, used their airport credentials and Gutiererez’s status as a supervisor to smuggle a small amount of cocaine past airport security. When that was accomplished, they would pass the samples to couriers, who would fly to the East Coast to distribute the drugs to potential customers.
If the buyers were satisfied with the samples, prosecutors say, one of the men would drive shipments of more than 220 pounds of cocaine to the East Coast.
The men were arrested following a joint investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and local law enforcement and charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine through the airport.
In December, authorities seized about 2 pounds of cocaine from Gutierrez in an airport restroom, where he was trying to pass the drugs to a courier who had a plane ticket to New York. Ponce, who was waiting for Gutierrez in a car nearby, was taken into custody.
The men were charged on the same day that 31-year-old Marsha Gay Reynolds made her first federal court appearance. Reynolds, a JetBlue flight attendent, surrendered to federal authorities after fleeing an LAX checkpoint on March 18, where authorities allege she left a bag with 70 pounds of cocaine.
The security risk from airline and airport employees became a bigger concern after several Delta Air Lines baggage handlers were arrested in December 2014. Prosecutors allege they smuggled guns, including an AK-47, from Atlanta to New York.
The TSA has said that fully screening all employees would cost too much. Instead, the agency has urged airports to increase random screenings of workers and to keep background checks up to date.
To prevent insider threats, authorities are limiting employee access to secure areas of LAX, Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon said Monday. The agency says officers are randomly inspecting employees coming in and out of restricted areas.
LAX police “take the possibility of an insider threat seriously and are creating an environment where every employee should expect they could be stopped and inspected at any time and any place while at the airport,” Gannon said in a statement.
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger is scheduled to testify Wednesday before a U.S. Senate committee on airport security. In recent testimony, he promised federal lawmakers that the agency “will pay particular attention to the insider threat.”