Two former baggage handlers at Los Angeles International Airport were arrested Monday and charged in connection with a cocaine smuggling operation.
Adrian Ponce, 27, and Alberto Preciado Gutierrez, 26, were charged in federal court with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. The men allegedly helped couriers involved in a nationwide operation use commercial airlines to smuggle kilogram samples of the cocaine from Los Angeles to East Coast customers.
Both men were scheduled to appear Monday in federal court in Los Angeles. It was not immediately clear whether the men have attorneys.
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"These defendants are charged with abusing their privileged access on behalf of drug dealers," said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. "This case is yet another example of employees associated with airports assisting drug traffickers."
About two weeks ago, a JetBlue flight attendant was arrested in a separate case after allegedly attempting to bring nearly 70 pounds of cocaine through security at LAX. Marsha Gay Reynolds ran from a security checkpoint and out of LAX before she turned herself in to authorities in New York City on Wednesday, investigators said.
Reynolds, charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, is also expected in federal court Monday.
Preciado and Ponce were arrested during an investigation into the use of employee credentials to breach airport security, according to the United States Attorney’s Office. Preciado was identified in a criminal complaint as a suprevisory baggage handler employed by Swissport International at LAX.
In December, investigators seized a kilogram of cocaine in an LAX Terminal 3 restroom, where Preciado was delivering the drug to a courier scheduled to take a flight to New York just hours later, according to the federal complaint. He was fired by Swissport after the incident, according to authorities.
Ponce was arrested as he waited for Preciado in a vehicle outside Terminal 3, according to investigators.
"Ponce gave a written statement in which he admitted that 'on multiple occasions,' he and Preciado had used Preciado'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 were willing to take the drugs on a commercial flight in exchange for payment," according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
If East Coast buyers liked the samples, larger shipments were delivered by driving the cocaine across country, according to authorities.
If convicted, Ponce and Preciado would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of life.