Smugglers used checked baggage to transport nearly  million worth of drugs, officials say

Smugglers used checked baggage to transport nearly $13 million worth of drugs, officials say

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd speaks on Friday, August 19, 2022, at a press conference on Operation Flying Ice.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd speaks on Friday about a large drug smuggling ring that used checked baggage at Los Angeles International Airport. (Polk County Sheriff’s Office)

They were loaded onto flights from California to Florida, suitcases full of drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.

For two years, officials from more than a dozen agencies in Florida, California, and the federal government scouted the drug ring, using wiretaps and undercover purchases to build a case that led to the largest drug busts and arrests in the county’s history. Polk , Florida, said Sheriff Grady Judd on Friday.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Flying Ice, yielded 85 arrests and led to 355 criminal charges and 93 misdemeanors, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said. Authorities estimate the total value of drugs seized on the streets to be more than $12.8 million.

Judd spoke about the effort during a press conference on Friday, in which he criticized the classification of drug-related crimes as low-level and non-violent.

The sheriff also called Los Angeles International Airport. On one occasion, a flight had six suitcases filled with 94 pounds of methamphetamine and 48 pounds of cannabis arriving in Orlando from Los Angeles, he said.

“They didn’t even throw a pair of underwear in the suitcase to act like they were hiding the drugs,” Judd said. “Do you think LAX has a drug smuggling problem at the airport? I believe they do and they need to get this resolved ASAP.”

Heath Montgomery, a spokesman for LAX, said the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for screening baggage and has referred questions to the TSA.

“TSA’s screening procedures are focused on our security mission and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers,” said a TSA spokesperson. “As such, TSA law enforcement officers are not looking for illegal drugs, but if discovered during the security screening process, the TSA will escalate the matter to our law enforcement partners for action.”

The investigation began in September 2020 after detectives served a search warrant in Winter Haven, Fla., and seized half a pound of methamphetamine, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Detectives continued to make undercover purchases from drug dealers in the area and discovered that large amounts of drugs were being smuggled from California to Florida via checked baggage on domestic flights, the Sheriff’s Office said. Investigators began a wiretapping investigation in February 2022.

“We’re dealing with an international smuggling ring that operated out of Winter Haven,” Judd said.

Investigators believe at least some of the drugs, particularly methamphetamine, were being smuggled into Los Angeles and Fresno from Mexico, according to the sheriff. The drugs then left these California centers, some flowing to Memphis, Tennessee, before reaching Orlando, and other shipments going directly from California to Florida.

In all, authorities seized 268 pounds of methamphetamine, 31 pounds of cocaine, 180 pounds of cannabis, 3.4 pounds of MDMA, 6.8 ounces of fentanyl, 68 Xanax pills, 173 oxycodone pills, 49 firearms, three inactive grenades, two ballistic vests, a stolen motorcycle and $235,000 in cash, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Authorities named six Florida men as the alleged leaders of the smuggling ring. Many of the 85 suspects arrested had long criminal records with 194 previous criminal convictions among them, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Investigators are looking for three more suspects: Jesus Barragan-Torres, 37, of Sanger, Calif.; Darrion Jacob, 40, of Winter Haven; and Amanda Paige Wittke, 38, of Polk City, Florida.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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