A former baggage handler employed at Los Angeles International Airport was arrested Tuesday by authorities investigating the use of employee credentials to breach airport security.
Alberto H. Botello, 23, of South Gate, was taken into custody without incident by officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department.
Botello is charged in a federal indictment with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and to distribute cocaine.
His co-defendants, Adrian Ponce, 28, and Alberto Preciado Gutierrez, 27, both of South Gate, were also former baggage handlers and were arrested in the Spring of 2016. Botello made his initial court appearance Wednesday afternoon in United States District Court in Los Angeles.
According to court documents, Ponce, Preciado Gutierrez, and Botello facilitated the ability of third-party couriers to use commercial airlines to smuggle kilogram “samples” of cocaine from Los Angeles to drug customers on the East Coast.
At the time of the conspiracy, Preciado Gutierrez was a supervisory baggage handler employed by Swissport International at LAX. Ponce previously worked at LAX for a baggage handling service that was recently acquired by Swissport.
During the investigation, law enforcement seized a kilogram of cocaine in Preciado Gutierrez’s possession on December 16, 2015. The seizure was made in a restroom in Terminal 3 at LAX, where Preciado Gutierrez was delivering the cocaine to a courier who was holding a boarding pass to travel on a JetBlue flight to New York only an hour later.
Ponce, who had been taken into custody while waiting for Preciado Gutierrez outside Terminal 3, was interviewed the following day.
Ponce provided a written statement in which he admitted that, “on multiple occasions,” he and Preciado Gutierrez had used Preciado Gutierrez’s supervisory status as an LAX employee to smuggle drugs to out-of-state drug customers by using third-party couriers who had booked flights from LAX to the East Coast and who were willing to take the drugs on a commercial flight in exchange for payment.
“Airport employees, who by virtue of their jobs have special access to secured areas, play an important role in the security of air travelers and our national security,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker.
“Instead of protecting our security, these defendants are charged with abusing their special access for personal profit and exposing unsuspecting air travelers to nationwide drug trafficking.”
In another statement given to law enforcement officials in 2016, Ponce admitted to working with a large-scale drug supplier, and he explained how couriers with travel documents would pass through normal airport security and would be provided with kilogram quantities of cocaine by Preciado Gutierrez, who had used his employee credentials to bypass security screening.
Ponce told investigators that if East Coast customers liked the cocaine “sample,” then large shipments – more than 100 kilograms – would be delivered by driving the narcotics across the country. Ponce admitted to driving trucks laden with drugs in exchange for payment.
“The national security threat posed by drug trafficking is multi-faceted, and we’re aggressively targeting these sorts of security breaches at our nation’s sea, land, and airports” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Steve Comer.
If convicted of the charged offenses, Ponce, Preciado Gutierrez, and Botello would face a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of 40 years.
This investigation was conducted by the DEA Los Angeles International Airport Narcotics Task Force, an inter-agency task force based at LAX.
In addition to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Task Force is made up of representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The Task Force also works closely with the United States Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.
The DEA Los Angeles International Airport Narcotics Task Force is providing a coordinated law enforcement effort to target airport/airline internal criminal enterprises that use the aviation system to transport large amounts of illicit drugs throughout the United States, and throughout the world.
Swissport International cooperated in the investigation. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Reema M. El-Amamy of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.