The airline employees said they were willing and able to smuggle anything on board commercial airline flights for money: drugs, weapons and even plastic explosives. But it could have been anything since they agreed not to inspect the packages, federal authorities said.
The Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport-based team of smugglers included a “main baggage scanner,” baggage handlers and others who could monitor bags as they were loaded on and off Spirit Airlines and Envoy Air planes, federal court records said.
All nine airline workers who were arrested almost one year ago for plotting to smuggle drugs out of the airport have since agreed to plead guilty to drug conspiracy charges in federal court in Dallas. The most recent plea came from Nelson Pabon, 47, the alleged ringleader, at the end of March. Pabon, a veteran Envoy employee, faces up to 40 years when he is sentenced.
“These folks… sold their positions, betrayed the public’s trust, abused their positions at the airport to make a dollar and put everybody at risk,” Assistant U.S. Attorney George Leal said during a detention hearing in the case. “They put the safety of the public in danger.”
The defendants smuggled what they were told was methamphetamine onto commercial airlines from 2016 to 2018, the indictment said. They were rounded up last year when FBI agents learned that Pabon offered to smuggle C-4 explosives on a flight. The arrests were the product of a two-year sting operation involving simulated drugs. A tenth defendants remains a fugitive.
Seven of them worked for Envoy Air, a regional carrier owned by American Airlines. Two others worked for Spirit Airlines. The men believed they were delivering the drugs to “Italian organized crime figures” in other states, including New Jersey, according to court documents in the case.
The drug packages were double-wrapped and sealed to make sure dogs wouldn’t sniff them out. But the defendants left nothing to chance. Pabon said that as a crew chief, he got advance notice of when drug canines would be in the baggage area, according to court records.
The others who have also admitted guilt in the case include: Jean Loui Vargas-Malave, 28; Juan Camacho Melendez, 22; Ruben Benitez-Matienzo, 45; Jose Luis Gaston-Rolon, 24; Joshua Israel Pagan Zapata, 21; Domingo Villafane Martinez III, 30; Luis Javier Collazo Rosado, 21; and Cristian David Cruz-Rodriguez, 23.
Gabriel Reyes, an attorney for Gaston-Rolon, said this week that his client regrets his conduct.
“Our hope is that the judge makes allowance for the fact that many of the individuals wrapped up in this operation, Mr. Gaston included, were young men without criminal histories and were lured by the promise of easy money,” Reyes said.
“It’s a tough lesson to learn — to say no and walk away, when these opportunities present themselves,” he said. “But Mr. Gaston is making the best of it and looking forward to a better future for himself and his family.”
Other defense attorneys either could not be reached or declined to comment.
It’s not the first time DFW Airport has unwitting been used as a transit hub for drug smugglers.
In fact, the first alleged drug transaction in the Pabon case in 2016 occurred the same month that the ringleader of another drug smuggling scheme was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. In that case, Moniteveti Katoa used his experience working at DFW Airport to smuggle what he thought was cocaine onto flights headed for cities nationwide.
Katoa worked for an aviation company at the airport, and he recruited his wife, who worked the ticket counter for American Airlines, in the scheme. And like Pabon, he was prepared to smuggle explosives through security and onto airplanes in exchange for money, prosecutors said. Katoa was among 45 others arrested in 2015 in an undercover sting.
Cynthia Vega, an airport spokeswoman, said that they have since reduced the number of employee portals used for access to secure areas. And each entrance is now manned by Department of Public Safety security officers, with full-body scanners, Vega said.
Vega said the airport works closely with the FBI and Transportation Security Administration to monitor security and safety issues and discuss evolving threats.
“Safety is our primary goal,” she said. “It is paramount that we stay on top of those potential threats.”
Airport drug smuggling cases have bedeviled domestic carriers for years, resulting in numerous busts nationwide. But the TSA has not required regular security screenings for airline employees. Some government officials have suggested the cost would be too high.
Safety and security
During last year’s detention hearing, Robert Parrish, a TSA official, told the judge the defendants had the highest security access — “unescorted access to all areas.”
U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox said during a news conference in Dallas last year announcing the arrests that members of the conspiracy acted as “lookouts” and engaged in countersurveillance to undermine police at the airport.
Ross Feinstein, an American Airlines spokesman, said in a statement that all airport employees undergo a criminal background check and that those who were indicted have been fired.
“At American and Envoy Air, we have an unwavering commitment to the safety and security of our customers and team members,” he said. “We took this matter very seriously and cooperated with law enforcement throughout their investigation.”
A Spirit representative could not be reached.
More than 66 kilograms of fake methamphetamine were shipped to Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix and Newark, NJ, from August 2016 to February 2018, according to prosecutors.
“On each transaction the undercovers, who were Italian and portrayed themselves as Italian organized crime figures, pulled out the kilos, showed it to them, counted it, told them it was crystal methamphetamine, and told them if they were tampered with they would not be paid the second half payment once it landed at its destination,” said Ray Harrison, the lead FBI agent in the case, during testimony in the detention hearing.
Pagan Zapata told FBI undercover employees that he was the main bag scanner “who was in charge of scanning all the bag tags before they were placed on the plane,” according to plea documents in the case.
Pabon told the undercover employees that Vargas-Malave had access to the airport’s control tower and could take measures to make sure they didn’t get caught, court records show.
During one of the 2017 drug transactions, Melendez sent an undercover employee a text message with photos of a backpack with fake drugs on an airport luggage cart, according to plea documents. Melendez said in the text that the backpack was on the plane and headed to Charlotte, NC.
He later sent a follow-up text confirming the backpack’s arrival in Charlotte and added: “Thank you for the opportunity. I know it will be the first of many that we will work hand in hand,” court records show.
Harrison, the lead FBI agent, said during the detention hearing that two different smuggling cells emerged at the airport when one group split with the other.
One of the cells, which was headed by Melendez, was willing to “undercut” the smuggling prices set by Pabon’s group, Harrison said. Melendez reached out to the undercovers and said, “I will actually fly drugs for you cheaper,” Harrison said during his testimony.
But Melendez had to go through Pabon “in some form to get permission,” he said.
At one point, Pabon discussed having Melendez killed because he thought he was cooperating with law enforcement, Harrison said.
“He had actually reached out to his brother down in San Antonio to act as a hit man,” the agent said.
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