STOPPING SMUGGLERS How CBP's Aircraft Search Team uncovers internal conspiracies with the airlines (2023)

Behind the scenes at two of the nation’s busiest international airports, a unique team of CBP officers uncovers internal conspiracies involving airline and airport employees. Below, CBP Officer Ramon Santaliz, right, and Jaime Rocafuerte, CBP’s deputy chief of passenger operations at JFK Airport, search an airplane’s flight deck. Photo by Donna Burton

A few weeks after CBP Officer Shazard Mohammed joined the Aircraft Search Team at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, he observed his first narcotics seizure. His colleague, CBP Officer Ishwardyal Sukhra, had discovered five bricks of cocaine on a flight from the Dominican Republic, hidden in a high-voltage, electrical cabinet where all of the aircraft’s computers are stored. The bricks were dangerously piled on top of wires that could easily become dislodged and set the plane on fire.“

This was an eye opener for me,” said Mohammed, a certified aircraft mechanic who in his previous work had never focused on using commercial airliners for smuggling. “It changed the way I look at aircraft.”

“Nobody in his right mind would do something like this. You could get electrocuted and die,” said Sukhra. “I always look at places where you have to think like a crook to catch a crook,” he said.

Behind the scenes at two of the country’s busiest international airports, a unique team of CBP officers tackles one of the agency’s greatest challenges, uncovering internal conspiracies with airline employees who use aircraft to smuggle illegal contraband. The Aircraft Search Team, comprised of 10 CBP officers based at JFK Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, are all certified, FAA-licensed aircraft mechanics, authorized to conduct inspections of aircraft including the cockpit, engines, hydraulics, avionics, and cargo areas of a plane. This specialized capability allows CBP to take a closer look at hidden compartments within aircraft without involving airline personnel, who could potentially tip off internal conspirators.

Since its inception at JFK more than 20 years ago, the Aircraft Search team has performed thousands of searches leading to numerous seizures—most pertaining to drugs. During the last six years alone, the Aircraft Search Team officers at JFK have intercepted 32 illegal drug shipments including 266 pounds of cocaine, 90 pounds of marijuana, 42 pounds. of hashish, 28 pounds of heroin, and 3.2 pounds of ecstasy.

As an international crossroad, JFK is prone to smuggling. “We see more flights from more parts of the world than any other airport in the country,” said Frank Russo, CBP’s port director at JFK Airport, noting that in 2017, JFK had more than 77,000 commercial flights of which the Aircraft Search Team inspected a targeted percentage.

A novel concept

In 1989, when JFK hired its first certified aircraft mechanic, it was a novel concept. At the time, inspectors from the U.S. Customs Service, one of CBP’s legacy agencies, along with canines searched aircraft. But the inspectors couldn’t access the more technical areas of the plane where the avionics are housed. “That could impact the airworthiness of the plane, so we had to get mechanics from the airlines to assist us,” said Susan Mitchell, then-port director at JFK.

However, that was problematic, too. “The industry we were regulating and policing had to come onboard to access some of these compartments,” said Mitchell. “It was highly likely they were subject to compromise as well, and that became a vulnerability for us.” So Mitchell decided to hire a retired Navy aircraft mechanic who could work with the canine unit. “I wanted to give us the best opportunity to control the situation,” she said.

A few years later, Mitchell hired two more certified aircraft mechanics, Frank Morrelli and Danny Gonzalez, but these men were also U.S. Customs inspectors, which created a new dynamic in the agency. Morrelli was a former Army aircraft technician and a mechanic for private aircraft on Long Island. Gonzalez, who had worked as an aircraft mechanic for UPS, Continental Airlines, and Delta Connection, had a lot of experience working on airport ramps. Both men held aeronautical maintenance degrees and FAA-sanctioned Airframe & Powerplant licenses. Together, they developed an aircraft search program with national policies and standard operating procedures. “We started to build a training profile,” said Morrelli. “A lot of ports in the U.S. wanted to know about aircraft searchbecause we had a huge conspiracy problem with smuggling drugs, not only at Kennedy Airport, but all over the nation.”

After 9/11, the pair was tapped for their knowledge. “We were considered the experts and held seminars to show other agencies areas on planes to check for hidden weapons,” said Gonzalez. The two also were asked to revamp the aircraft search program. “At that point, we were no longer only concentrating on narcotics. Our priority became antiterrorism,” Gonzalez explained.

After CBP was formed in 2003, the Aircraft Search Team at JFK expanded. All of the new recruits were CBP officers who were licensed aircraft mechanics. Most had years of experience working for the airlines, and they saw firsthand how internal conspiracies operate. Smugglers overseas hide narcotics and other contraband on aircraft or inside luggage for someone at a U.S. airport to retrieve and deliver into the U.S. marketplace. “It could be the caterers, cleaners, mechanics, baggage handlers, flight crew, or even the security guards. Money moves a lot of people,” said Ramon Santaliz, a CBP officer on the Aircraft Search Team.

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Catching crooks

For example, in May 2015, the Aircraft Search Team received intel that drugs might be hidden on a flight from Santo Domingo. “I looked underneath the seat in the last row and found a life vest pouch that felt a little bulkier than usual,” said CBP Officer Journael Garry Cambry. Inside the vest, Cambry discovered a brick of cocaine that was wrapped like a package. “My partner, Maciej Niedbala, and I removed the real narcotics from the life vest, substituted it with sham, and set up surveillance,” said Cambry. “Then we drove two or three gates away and waited.”

Within seconds, the surveillance paid off. “Sometimes we’ll wait near a plane for two or three hours,” said Cambry. “But this time, we were alerted within a minute. We drove to the aircraft and entered the plane. I never thought I could run that fast.”

Cambry apprehended the cleaning supervisor, who had taken the sham out of the life vest. “She said she thought it was garbage,” said Cambry, who continued searching the aircraft with his partner while a Homeland Security Investigations, HSI, special agent questioned the cleaning supervisor. Theagent checked the woman’s cell phone and found a series of coded text messages that corresponded with where the cocaine was hidden. “The seat numbers were apartment numbers at an address in the Bronx,” said Cambry. “That’s how we found more bricks. We linked them to the text messages.”

Three bricks, weighing 3-1/2 pounds in total, were seized, and the cleaning supervisor was arrested. “She admitted that she was removing drugs from aircraft twice a week and was getting paid $5,000 each time she did it,” said Sal Aloisio, the Aircraft Search Team’s supervisor. “That’s a drop in the bucket for a drug organization. By the time they cut that poundage up and sell it, they’ll make hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m going into my 40th year here at JFK and we’ve arrested cleaners, airline mechanics, ramp personnel, supervisors, and even CBP officers. Smuggling is never going to stop because the profit margin is too high,” he said. “If we find it in area A, they’ll go to area B. If we find it in area B, they’ll go to area C. In other words, there’s always going to be a loophole someplace.”

Extra eyes

The Aircraft Search Team is also a second set of eyes. During the last six years, the team has discovered more than 80 significant mechanical safety-related issues on commercial aircraft at JFK. “We work hand in hand with the airlines when it comes to safety,” said Sukhra. “If we find something, we let the airlines know and they rectify the problem.”

For example, a few years ago, Sukhra discovered a hydraulic leak in the landing gear of a Boeing 737. “It was leaking a lot of fluid, so we did an inspection,” he said. “We found a loose nut that connected the lines carrying hydraulic fluid. If the plane had taken off, the pilot would have lost control of the aircraft.” Sukhra informed the airline. “The plane was supposed to go back out that day, but they had to fix it, so the plane was airworthy again.”

Flights are targeted based on intelligence and narcotics seizure trends. “We look at the schedule of inbound flights and randomly pick what we wantto see,” said Cambry. As flights come in, canines sniff the area and luggage is X-rayed. “We make sure there’s nothing inside the bags. From there, we’ll search the aircraft before any crew is allowed to board the plane.”

Morning flights are quick turnarounds. Evening flights usually stay overnight, so there’s more time to search and more time for conspirators to find hidden contraband. “The aircraft is its own contained world. It could be anywhere on the aircraft—from the tip of the nose all the way to the tail because there are hidden spaces everywhere,” said Santaliz. “Ninety percent of the time nothing is exposed.”

The officers search in pairs, equipped with mirrors and flashlights for hard to see places. “We split the aircraft in sections. My partner does the back of the plane, I do the front, and we meet in the middle, so we cover the whole aircraft,” said Santaliz.

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Hiding places

The bathroom is a favorite hiding place. “Smugglers will go to great lengths to bring narcotics into the country,” said Jaime Rocafuerte, JFK’s deputy chief of passenger operations, who found narcotics inside a toilet when he worked with the Aircraft Search Team. “I reached inside the waste tank through the feces and found two canisters, the size of small soda cans, wrapped in condoms. The canisters contained 3-1/2 pounds of cocaine,” he said.

“We’ll find drugs inside the galley carts or on the bottom of garbage cans or they’ll tape a brick of cocaine underneath the toilet paper roll,” said Santaliz. “We’ve even found loads in the pilot’s seat and under the arm rest in first class.” There are trends too. “For a few months, the smugglers will decide to hide drugs in the bathroom. Then they’ll stop and we’ll find drugs in the cargo hold, the belly of the aircraft. Then three months later, they’re hiding drugs in the bathroom again. They always return to the same hiding places. There’s a cycle,” Santaliz said.

If CBP finds narcotics during an aircraft search, airlines pay steep fines--$1,000 an ounce. There’s no charge if the airlines find contraband and report it. “We have a mutual understanding with the airline industry,” said Morrelli. “We respect the airlines, but we still have a job to do and everybody knows that.”

In 2007, the Aircraft Search Team expanded to Newark Airport. “CBP’s leadership saw the importance of the work we do and knew how successful we were at JFK,” said Gonzalez, who spearheaded the program at Newark.

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Conspiracy case

When the Aircraft Search Team seizes contraband at JFK, the Internal Conspiracy Group, an interagency task force led by HSI, investigates it. “The main thing we do is try to take down smuggling organizations,” said Supervisory CBP Officer Eloy Rosado, who heads the agency’s Internal Conspiracy Group efforts. “Some of the investigations take years. These are elaborate rings and it’s a big net that we’re casting out.”

The Aircraft Search Team is critical in unraveling conspiracies. A striking example is the case of Victor Bourne, a former airline baggage handler who was convicted in 2012 of smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of narcotics from the Caribbean to the U.S. through JFK. For nearly 10 years, Bourne was the mastermind behind an international drug trafficking ring, and the Aircraft Search Team was pivotal in bringing it down.

“It was late 2004. We were getting numerous seizures back to back around that time, and they were all related to Bourne,” recalled Cambry, who was searching a flight from Montego Bay, Jamaica. “Usually, we might find a brick or two, but this time, I opened a panel and there was a sea of bricks. I was astonished.” In the wing spar, where the wings meet the body of the aircraft, Cambry discovered 65 bricks, totaling 365 pounds of marijuana. “That’s where the fuel tanks are,” said Cambry. “We opened a big panel, which had over 50 screws, and I slipped between the support beams to retrieve the bricks.”

The extra weight was dangerous. “They don’t care as long as they get their $10,000 or $20,000,” said Cambry. “A lot of them don’t know the risk they’re creating for the plane.” Then Cambry noticed that one of the bricks was stuck between a cable line and a pulley. “This was more than a matter of finding narcotics. This was a safety issue,” he said. “The plane could have crashed.”

“From that seizure and additional seizures made by the Aircraft Search Team, we were able to piece together the employees we suspected of being involved in this smuggling organization,” said Christopher Lau, HSI’s assistant special agent in charge of the New York City Border Enforcement Security Task Force at JFK. “If the narcotics had shifted on that flight, it could have caused a catastrophic failure of the plane. It put every passenger on the aircraft in danger. So the judge gave Victor Bourne three life sentences for tampering with an aircraft.” Nineteen other airline employees, who were in on the scheme, were also convicted.

“When it comes to internal conspiracy investigations, the Aircraft Search Team is not only a tremendous partner, but the frontline for us. Without them, we’re not going to know about a smuggling event or be given the chance to pursue an investigation,” said Lau. “What they do is vital to the nation’s security.”

One of the Aircraft Search Team’s strategies is to be unpredictable. “We’re constantly changing our hours. We’re constantly changing our shifts. We can’t be predictable because we know they’re watching our movements.” said Rosado. “It’s a cat and mouse game and there’s big money in this. That’s why we try to be out there and meet as many flights as we possibly can, to keep the pressure on them.”

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