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Four Flight Attendants Charged With Smuggling $8 Million in Drug Money to the Dominican Republic By Using Special Security Lane to Bypass Checks

Four Flight Attendants Charged With Smuggling $8 Million in Drug Money to the Dominican Republic By Using Special Security Lane to Bypass Checks

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Four New York-based flight attendants have been charged with smuggling as much as $8 million in drug money from the United States to the Dominican Republic over a seven-year period following a major investigation by Homeland Security Investigations.

The flight attendants are accused of using their special security privileges to bypass normal TSA airport checkpoints at New York JFK in order to smuggle bags full of money obtained from the illicit Fentanyl trade that continues to plague the United States.

In two criminal complaints that were unsealed on Wednesday, Charlie Hernandez, 42, Sarah Valerio Puljols, 42, Emmanuel Torres, 34, and Jarol Fabio, 35, are alleged to have abused their status as flight attendants to help an international drug smuggling gang to get their illegal drugs money out of the United States.

Flight attendants in the US hold a special security status called ‘Known Crewmember’ or KCM, which allows them to bypass the normal TSA security checkpoint with little scrutiny of what they are carrying in their luggage.

Under the KCM program, flight attendants don’t normally have to place their luggage through an X-ray machine, providing an ideal way to get large amounts of cash out of the US without anyone noticing.

The criminal complaints allege that the four defendants abused this special status over many years so as to smuggle the money in return for a small ‘fee’.

Torres, Pujols, and Fabio are accused of smuggling approximately $1.5 million each Fabio over an eight-year period from 2015 to 2022, while Hernandez is accused of smuggling around $2.5 million.

Both Fabio and Torres started working for an unnamed international airline in 2015 and almost immediately started to smuggle narcotics money on behalf of the drug gang. Hernandez and Pujols were more veteran flight attendants, but they also started to traffic narcotics money for the gang in 2014 and 2015.

Fabio and Torres were caught after law enforcement managed to catch their handler who they then involved in a sting operation. Law enforcement arranged for the handler to give the flight attendants taxpayer money, which was then smuggled to the Dominican Republic by the flight attendants before it was recovered and returned to the US.

The flight attendants used code words in their communication with the handler to disguise what they were doing, including saying they were sending ‘lotions’ and ‘stuff’ to the Dominican Republic.

Pujols was the first flight attendant to be caught in December 2019 when she was stopped by CBP officers as she was about to leave on a flight from New York JFK to the Dominican Republic. An inspection of her luggage revealed she had $60,000 in US currency stuffed in her bag.

“This investigation has exposed critical vulnerabilities in the airline security industry and has illuminated methods that narcotics traffickers are utilizing,” commented HSI Special Agent in Charge Ivan J. Arvelo on Wednesday.

“As alleged, the defendants knowingly smuggled large amounts of illicit money linked to the sale of narcotics, to include fentanyl, and took advantage of airport security checkpoints by using their trusted positions as flight attendants,” Arvelo continued.

The four ex-flight attendants have each been charged with one count of operations of an unlicensed money transmission business and one count of entering an airport or aircraft area in violation of security requirements. If found guilty, the flight attendants face a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment.

In addition, Pujols and Hernandez have each been charged with one count of conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transmission business, which carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. Pujols has also been charged with one count of bulk cash smuggling.

Matt’s take

It’s probably fair to say that flight attendants are very close to having their Known Crewmember privileges rescinded altogether or, at the very least, significantly altered, after a slew of high-profile abuses of the program.

In 2022, for example, a flight attendant pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle fentanyl that was strapped to her abdomen through a KCM checkpoint at San Diego Airport. Terese Lee White was only caught when she was pulled aside for a random check which set off the metal detector.

And last September, an off-duty flight attendant who was commuting to work was stopped at a KCM checkpoint in Philadelphia with a loaded handgun in her bag. Again, 23-year-old Kiala Santa Cruz was only stopped as a result of a random check.

Those random checks are on the rise because of how a small number of flight attendants have been abusing the KCM lanes to smuggle illicit goods on airplanes.

KCM was created in 2011 as a joint initiative between industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A) and the Air Line Pilots Association to expedite screening for crew members who have already undergone extensive security vetting.

Airlines rely on KCM to shorten turnaround times, but the TSA decided to take full control of the program last year because of alleged abuses. That has led to many more ‘random’ screenings in a bid to crack down on abuse of the system.

Last year, the union that represents pilots at American Airlines became so frustrated with the growing number of random checks that they threatened to stop using KCM altogether.

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