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Planes High-Priority Item in Drug Trade

November 30, 1986|WARREN PERLEY | United Press International

MONTREAL — The U.S. Customs agent who searched a Colombian Avianca Airlines 747 on Feb. 13, 1985, at Miami airport found more than Valentine's Day carnations. Stashed in the cargo bay were 2,478 pounds of cocaine.

The drugs had a street value of $600 million, one of the largest seizures in U.S. history.

Now, almost two years after the bust, diplomats of the International Civil Aviation Organization are still arguing over how to deal with drug smuggling.

ICAO, based here in Canada, is the United Nations body that oversees all aspects of civilian aviation on behalf of its 156-member governments.

27-Page Document

At the triennial meeting of its general assembly, which ended Oct. 10, ICAO representatives were given a 27-page working document on the problem of drug smuggling aboard passenger and other commercial aircraft.

Both drug abuse by crew members and smuggling compromise the safety of international aviation, Adm. Donald Engen, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said in a speech to the ICAO.

"We want a recognition by ICAO that there is a problem," Engen said in an interview. "ICAO must address it."

Engen's concern is reflected in statistics that show drug smuggling affects the United States more than any other nation. Almost 75% of the world's narcotic drugs--most produced in South America and the Middle East--is sold in the United States, according to a study released last year by Commodore Leon Smith, commander of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force.

50,506 Pounds Seized

Most cocaine comes by air. In 1985, U.S. Customs agents seized 50,506 pounds of cocaine, which had a street value of $13.7 billion. The greatest single port of entry was Miami International Airport, the most frequently used landing area for aircraft from South American drug-producing countries such as Colombia.

The 1985 cocaine seizures represented an 83% increase over 1984, which had been 138% higher than the amount seized in 1983.

Statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration indicate that 62% of the cocaine is seized from private aircraft, many of which try to land undetected at deserted airstrips. Commercial airliners account for 18% of cocaine seizures. Eleven percent come from non-commercial ocean vessels, 8% from commercial ocean vessels and 1% from land transport.

It is the 18% involving commercial air carriers that has all airline officials worried.

Screening Tightened

"It's a real problem," a spokesman for Eastern Airlines said in a telephone interview from Miami. "We've tightened screening procedures of personnel, instituted extra screening procedures for carry-on luggage and hired armed guards to prevent access to the aircraft by unauthorized personnel when it is on the runway. But it's still not possible to eradicate the problem."

Flights originating in Colombia, whether by U.S. or foreign carriers, are the favored vehicles of smugglers. In addition to hiding cocaine among flowers, smugglers also frequently conceal them under the cockpit, an area accessible to mechanics.

ICAO documents indicate that 66.5% of illicit drugs on commercial aircraft are smuggled in luggage. Most are detected.

Another 23% are smuggled in or on the body of a passenger. The 9.2% hidden in parts of the plane such as the avionics, wings, oxygen-mask compartments and lavatories are not found unless specific and thorough searches are made.

Personnel Trained

In an effort to ferret out illegal drugs, Customs agents have trained airline security personnel on what to look for in those areas during pre- and post-flight inspections.

If all else fails, customs agents will seize an aircraft when drugs are repeatedly found on a certain route and they suspect that airline officials have been lax about security. One airline was forced to pay a $1-million fine after a large drug bust several years ago.

"Substantial amounts of drugs are coming in on commercial aircraft," DEA spokesman Cornelius Dougherty said in a telephone interview from Washington. "There has been more vigilance on the part of airlines in recent months in terms of the people they hire. . . . But if we have any indication that the airline has some knowledge of what was concealed in the cargo, then it is grounds for seizure."

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