Meanwhile, Puerto Rico moves to tighten lax airline rules on firearms.
Pedro Ruz Gutierrez and Jeannette Rivera-Lyles
Sentinel Staff Writers
June 8, 2007
An airline worker who used his badge to foil security checkpoints at Orlando International Airport pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges he smuggled drugs and guns to his native Puerto Rico.
As Zabdiel Santiago-Balaguer, 22, admitted his role in Orlando federal court, senators in the U.S. commonwealth passed a bill that would close the loophole in airline procedures that allows legitimate travelers to easily transport firearms to the island.
For years, gunrunners have been taking advantage of lax airline rules to import the weapons that have fueled the island's illegal-gun market. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimates that up to two-thirds of the guns come from Florida.
In March, Santiago-Balaguer was arrested and named the ringleader in a gun- and drug-smuggling operation after a fellow airline employee was arrested at San Juan's airport with 14 guns and 8 pounds of marijuana he had carried onto a Delta Air Lines flight.
The incident prompted Congress to mandate a full review of security procedures at the nation's airports and call for background checks of all employees with access to secure areas by the Transportation Security Administration. OIA has already begun to screen all workers.
The case also highlights the widespread problem of stolen guns that runs parallel to a growing crime wave in Central Florida. The Sentinel recently reported that several Orange County residents suspected in area gun-shop thefts sold firearms to Santiago-Balaguer and other co-defendants.
On Thursday, Santiago-Balaguer, shackled at the feet and wearing an Orange County Jail jumpsuit, told U.S. District Court Judge John Antoon II he was responsible for the contraband.
"I was smuggling guns and marijuana through the airport as an airline employee," Santiago-Balaguer said in federal court. The Kissimmee resident, who is being held without bail, is the first to work out a deal with the government. There are at least five other defendants who have been charged in the case.
Santiago-Balaguer is a former employee of Comair, a Delta subsidiary. He faces up to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute at least 10 pounds of cocaine and using and carrying a firearm in relation to a drug-trafficking crime.
According to a 20-page plea agreement he signed with the U.S. Attorney's Office on Monday, Santiago-Balaguer will cooperate with authorities and as a result may get a reduced prison term at his Sept. 5 sentencing.
FBI and Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation agents began tracking Santiago-Balaguer in January, the plea says. At Super Bowl XLI in Miami, the Kissimmee resident unknowingly introduced his source of cocaine on the island to an undercover agent.
During the game, according to court records, Santiago-Balaguer "discussed shipping guns and marijuana to Puerto Rico and obtaining cocaine and heroin from Puerto Rico."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vincent Citro said Santiago-Balaguer acted as a translator and go-between when he set up a cocaine deal with the undercover agent in Miami. Assistant Federal Public Defender Stephen Langs would not comment Thursday.
The bill in the Puerto Rico Legislature, sponsored by Sen. Lucy Arce, will require airlines and cruise ships to ensure that people entering Puerto Rico with guns have a valid license. If they don't, the bill mandates that the airline or cruise line hold and turn over the weapons to police.
If a resident of Puerto Rico, the gun owner could apply for a license to legally possess the gun on the island. If the gun owner is a tourist, he or she would have to relinquish the weapons and get them back when ready to leave the island. A companion bill to the one passed Thursday could be taken up in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives as early as next week. The sponsor, Rep. Jorge Colberg Toro, predicted it would pass without opposition. "It will be the law of the land in 30 days or less," Colberg Toro said.
Currently, no federal government agency regulates the transport of guns by passengers on domestic flights. Instead, airlines regulate themselves.
American Airlines allows up to five guns, three rifle-type weapons and 11 pounds of ammunition per passenger. The weapons must be unloaded, secured in locked boxes and packed in checked luggage.
But in order to legally carry weapons in Puerto Rico, a state-issued license is required. Thus, passengers who bring guns in from other destinations are breaking the law unless they secure a Puerto Rico license.
The airlines, Arce and Colberg Toro said, have not opposed the measure so far.
"I don't know what's there for them to oppose," Colberg Toro said. "It is unconceivable to let things go the way they have. We have investigated, and the findings show that this loophole in the law is fueling the illegal-weapons market."