MEXICO CITY — Leonardo Cardenas had high expectations when he boarded a flight to Mexico. The respected Colombian engineer had been hired to lend his expertise to an important project at a Mexico City amusement park.
He checked in two suitcases at Bogota's airport, one packed with piles of research, drawings and calculations, the other filled with enough clothes and personal items to last him the three months he expected to stay.
He never made it to the job, and the documents never made it to Mexico. Cardenas was whisked off to jail after Mexican officers found nine pounds of heroin in a suitcase with his name on it.
He spent two months in jail before Mexican authorities cleared him after deciding someone had substituted the heroin bag for Cardenas' suitcase. He returned home early this year with nothing but legal bills and a traumatized family to show for his trip.
"It was like in a movie," Cardenas said. "You don't understand what is happening. Finally you realize the injustice of being blamed for something you haven't done. It was as if, in a way, my life had ended."
The engineer was the apparent victim of an age-old trick that may be making a comeback in Latin American airports: Smugglers snatch the claim check and ID tag off luggage of an unsuspecting traveler and attach them to a replacement bag packed with drugs.
The scheme requires someone inside an airline, such as a baggage handler, to switch the suitcases at the departure airport and someone else to grab the substitute bag at the other end before it makes it onto the luggage carousel.
The maneuver gets around the anti-terrorism practice of many airlines to prohibit their planes from taking off with unidentified luggage aboard. And, in case a drug-filled suitcase is found, the blame shifts from the smugglers to the unfortunate person whose real bag has been filched.
"When the trafficker can't get the suitcase . . . if you claim it, without realizing it, you're claiming a suitcase full of drugs," said Mauricio Aranguren, a Colombian journalist who knows the problem firsthand. He was held in a Mexican jail for 20 days after smugglers pulled a switch on him in 1995.
Drug experts say the method, which has been used since the 1970s, could be making a comeback among dealers tapping into Colombia's growing heroin market and cocaine smugglers filling the void left by the partial demise of the Medellin and Cali cartels.
"We certainly see a large amount of corruption in baggage handlers and customs agents both in Colombia and in Mexico . . . so the fact that it could occur does not surprise me a great deal," said Bruce Bagley, a drug expert at the University of Miami.
An agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who spent 2 1/2 years working at Bogota's El Dorado airport said there were five cocaine seizures involving bag-switching in the second half of 1999.
One involved Gustavo Medina, a Mexican industrial engineer who was held for several hours at Colombia's airport in September after his baggage-claim check was found attached to a suitcase containing 80 pounds of cocaine. No charges were filed.
Brent Eaton, special agent for the DEA in Miami, said recent bag-switching incidents have been brought to the agency's attention "in several places, and perhaps it's on the rise."
But he said reliable statistics are hard to come by.
If a suitcase full of drugs makes it through undetected, the victim whose suitcase is replaced by a contraband bag will simply think the airline has misplaced his luggage and will file a claim. "So it wouldn't show up in the statistics," Eaton said.
Aranguren, who is writing a book about drug smuggling at Bogota's airport, said "suitcase cartels" are flourishing at Bogota's airport.
"It involves corruption among the people who handle the luggage and the security officials," he said.
The DEA and Colombian police found significant corruption at Bogota's airport, according to the DEA agent formerly assigned there. He said 40 employees, from baggage handlers to caterers, were identified as suspects in cocaine seizures and at least five were arrested.
Despite his experience, Cardenas plans to return to Mexico City to complete his work at the amusement park. This time, though, he isn't checking any bags.
"It's something I'll get over in time," he said, "but for now I'm going to carry my suitcases."