On a flight from St Croix, US Virgin Islands, to Miami, Florida, an American Airlines contract cleaner removed five life vests and replaced them with bricks of cocaine weighing at least five kilograms and with a street value of roughly $815,000.
After being detained in July 2019 for his role in the smuggling plot, Luis Ortiz Jr, 25, reached an agreement with prosecutors.
Ortiz might be imprisoned for the rest of his life, with a minimum term of ten years in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000.
Ortiz worked as an airplane cleaner and took advantage of his position to smuggle a large amount of cocaine onto American Airlines flight AA2227.
Ortiz enlisted two drug mules, one of whom was his girlfriend at the time, to buy tickets for the aircraft and recover the drugs shortly after boarding.
On the evening of July 10, 2019, surveillance footage acquired at St Croix’s Rohlsen airport showed Ortiz, dressed in an enormous jacket, boarding a parked American Airlines plane in the middle of the night and immediately strolling to rows 17 and 18 of the cabin.
He then dropped the window blinds and fled the plane eight minutes later, carrying a bundle “similar in size with the life vests removed from rows 17 and 18.”
The drug mules were told to seek assistance from an American Airlines gate agent the following morning, who permitted them to preboard the flight and remove the drugs from the life vest containers without being seen by other passengers.
The flight was met by Customs and Border Protection (CPB) personnel upon arrival in Miami, and the two mules were taken into custody.
They both pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute and were sentenced in a Florida court earlier this year.
Prosecutors declined to specify how they were tipped off, but said the probe was part of an OCDETF (Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force) operation.
Although flight attendants aren’t usually entrusted with ensuring that life vests haven’t been tampered with, airlines do routine checks that can range from ensuring that every life vest is properly stowed to simply sampling a particular proportion of the total number of life vests on board.