updated 10/16/2007 9:29:21 PM ET 2007-10-17T01:29:21

A ring of airline employees exploited weaknesses in security procedures to help a New York drug ring smuggle heroin and cocaine through John F. Kennedy Airport, federal authorities charged Tuesday.

At least 18 people have been charged in the plot, including seven employees at Delta Air Lines, one at American Airlines, and two others who worked at JFK. Several were arrested Tuesday in a roundup that followed a two-year probe by customs agents.

Prosecutors said the group concealed drugs in luggage on jets traveling from the Dominican Republic, then retrieved the bags at JFK before they could be inspected by customs agents.

The suspects include cargo and baggage handlers, an employee of a global courier service and a “lookout” for the group who had access to JFK’s tower through her job with Aramark, a cleaning, maintenance and food service company.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent said in a court filing that, in some cases, workers whose jobs gave them “virtually unfettered and unsupervised” access to arriving flights simply turned up, removed the drug-filled bags from the jet’s cargo hold, and walked off with them while taking care to avoid security cameras.

“Conspiracies of this nature are particularly effective in the smuggling of contraband into the United States,” senior special agent Meredith Leung said in a court affidavit.

Years-long investigation
The agency said it began investigating in 2005 after a suitcase containing cocaine and heroin was seized at JFK after arriving on a Delta flight. Agents built the case by tapping the phones of several suspects, including some who turned up to unload bags on shifts when they weren’t scheduled to work.

Prosecutors identified the leader of the drug ring as Henry Polanco, a 31-year-old resident of Manhattan. They said the corrupt Delta employees were led by Jorge Espinal, 38, a cargo supervisor for Delta.

Both men were in federal custody and unavailable for comment Tuesday. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn said he didn’t know if the suspects had attorneys.

A Delta spokeswoman, Chris Kelly, said the airline has been cooperating with the probe for several months. Each of the implicated employees has been suspended without pay, pending the outcome of the investigation, she said.

She said Delta performs a background check on every employee with access to secure airport zones, and that those arrested appeared to have passed that check.

An American Airlines spokesman confirmed that one of the men charged in the case worked part time as a baggage handler, but declined to otherwise comment. A spokeswoman for Aramark said she was unaware of the case.

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