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Airlines looking at extra security measures to thwart drug mules

Dec 09, 2007

(eTN) - The plastic wrapping of passengers' baggage and extra security are some of the measures international airlines servicing Guyana have been looking at in order to thwart drug smugglers.

While the smuggling of drugs, particularly cocaine, has for years been a bugbear at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, recently drug barons have employed airport personnel to place their illegal cargo in passengers' bags. While some of these have been discovered before the flights left, others have made it to their destinations before being uncovered. Airlines face punitive fines when drugs are found to have been transported on their planes.

Caribbean Airlines General Manager Carlton DeFour in an interview with Stabroek News said he was very concerned about the recent developments but noted that this was not something new at the airport. However, he said, the airline was trying to minimize such occurrences.

"The fact that some of them are being intercepted; it shows that the different levels of security worked," he said. He pointed to a recent letter carried in this newspaper in which the writer said he had locked his suitcases when he checked in, but when he arrived in Toronto, the locks were no longer there. He could not say where the breach may have occurred.

DeFour said his airline was examining a series of measures to ensure the safety of passengers' bags, including the wrapping of bags. He said since the transition from BWIA to Caribbean Airlines employees have had to go through stringent security background checks. "But we can't say what an employee will do when he or she starts working and this is why we have a support mechanism, guarding the guards. We try to guide them," he said.

He acknowledged that the recurrence of the illegal activity could have an impact on the local airport and so his airline would always support the local authorities if any of its employees were found engaging in the illegal practice.

"It would only give the airport here a bad name and this is not good," he insisted.

While North American Airlines has not been targeted in any of the recent cases, Sales Manager Junior Horatio maintained that this issue "has to be a concern for airlines as well as the travelling public." The airline wraps each passenger's suitcase with a tough plastic wrapping and this in his opinion, gave confidence to passengers.

North American took this initiative more than two years ago and also introduced a two-layer security check in addition to standard security arrangements.

"But I feel every airline has to be very vigilant. And while it has not occurred on our airline, it is definitely not an issue that has escaped our attention and we are trying to be proactive," Horatio told this newspaper.

He too acknowledged that persons trying to get cocaine out of the country through the airport was not a new phenomenon and it had caused flights coming from Guyana to face extra scrutiny at their port of destination.

Travel Span GT Incorporated still hopes that it would not face fines from the US authorities after its August 1, flight carried a suitcase which was laden with some 70lbs of cocaine. The tag number on the suitcase matched the baggage tag numbers on a passenger's ticket, thus implicating him in the find. He is awaiting trial in a US court.

Acting General Manager Karen Whitehead in an interview with Stabroek News said that while the airline tried to be vigilant, there was definitely more room for improvement in relation to the fixed security systems at the airport.

According to her, there had been a number of security meetings in which the airlines had been involved.

"But the airlines could only do so much and the airport authorities have recognized collusion and are tying to put measures in place," she said.

Asked whether the airline had been subject to any stringent checks since the recent occurrence, Whitehead responded, not that she was aware. "We are trying to do our best and our staff members have been spoken to about all the extra precautions that we need to put in place," she said.

She explained that the airlines collaborated among themselves as well as with the airport authorities to ensure proper security at all times.

Constellation Tours Area Manager Sharmila Ramsammy said that drugs and attempts to ship them out the country had always been an issue and in this regard the airline was forced to contract additional security.

However, at the end of the day it boiled down to the security establishments at the airport.

"The other security services are not trained for this kind of thing and so ultimately it will be up to CANU and the others," she said. "If there is a drug bust, at no point are we contacted because this is considered sensitive. But if it comes down to a court case we would give statements or whatever."

In terms of current security measures at the airport, Ramsammy said, "given the resources, training and personnel I think that they are doing a good job."

A Caribbean Airlines clerk is facing trial after he allegedly checked in a cocaine-filled suitcase and tried to pass it off as belonging to an outgoing passenger. The clerk, Terry Ramjohn, has denied the charge and was subsequently remanded to prison.

On the day in question he was the check-in agent for a flight to JFK airport, New York, via Port of Spain.

During the check-in procedure, a suitcase was found in an area where processed suitcases are normally located. The suitcase was labelled with a baggage tag generated by computers belonging to Caribbean Airlines but when the passenger was contacted, he denied ownership of it. CANU officers searched it and discovered the drugs concealed in items inside. An investigation was launched and Ramjohn was later arrested.

Several extra bags laden with cocaine have been placed on aircraft, and over the years many of them have ended up at US airports. The ones intercepted here have had no owners and some of the investigations in relation to them are ongoing.

Back in June, CANU ranks at the airport intercepted a suitcase bound for Canada with 6,583 grammes of cocaine inside. Officials had said that from all appearances, persons unknown were attempting to smuggle the drug out of the country by labelling the suitcase with the name of a passenger who was scheduled to leave for Canada. That passenger was not arrested.

A CANU officer had told the media that on that day a woman in a wheelchair scheduled to leave on a Zoom Airlines flight bound for Canada checked in with one black suitcase. The officer said an airline official later noticed a brown suitcase next to the woman's and on checking discovered that the woman's name was written on it but in a different handwriting.

Officials at the airport were alerted and on checking found six huge parcels of cocaine underneath two bath towels.

In September, a 55-year-old man travelling to the US from here, was caught with heroin when he arrived there aboard a Constellation Airlines Flight. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Inspectors had selected Truls Soerbotten for inspection and he had presented one suitcase. The tag on the suitcase matched the security wrap tags and the suitcase was locked with a personal combination lock.

When Soerbotten was asked by CBP officers, he voluntarily opened the combination lock. Upon inspection of the suitcase, CBP officers observed that the plastic lining was unusually thick. Further inspection of a crack in the lining revealed a brown powdery substance that field-tested positive for heroin. The gross weight of the substance was 3,530 grammes, but this weight reflected that of the heroin as well as the weight of a portion of the suitcase which could not be separated from the drug prior to it being sent to the Drug Enforcement Administration laboratory.

This newspaper had asked Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon to comment on the matter after the first bust was made, which pointed to possible collaboration between drug traffickers and airport staff. He had said he felt that some airport staff were collaborating with external forces to facilitate drug trafficking.

"I don't have a problem saying that members of staff are collaborating with external forces and have arrangements to have drugs sent out by air... I think their support extends as far as deliberately disabling surveillance equipment in place at the airport," Luncheon had said.

stabroeknews.com

Airlines looking at extra security measures to thwart drug mules



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