How many times have you heard the story that the airlines lost your luggage? And, after notifying the airline office, they find your bag at the departure airport and put in on the next flight to your destination. You may have unwittingly played a part in the smuggling of drugs and money by the drug cartels.
The bad news is that, yes, criminal organizations are swapping luggage in order to smuggle drugs and large amounts of money. Even worse, although the authorities have known for decades that this is happening, if it is your luggage that is swapped and drugs or money are found, the nature of the crime demands preventive incarceration until such time that they decide that there is not enough evidence to find you guilty.
Suitcase Cartels are not just a problem here in the Americas, as they operate the world over. There have been reports from most International airports the world over. Recently 3.5 kilograms of meth were found in the luggage of a 72-year old man and his 64-year old wife, when they returned to Perth, Australia after a week-long holiday in Canada.
How it is done
The luggage swapping scheme requires someone working inside an airline, such as a baggage handler. They snatch the claim check and ID tag off of the luggage of an unsuspecting traveler and attach them to a replacement bag packed with drugs. The traveler’s original luggage is then put aside, as it cannot be loaded on the plane without documentation. The maneuver gets around an anti-terrorism practice of many airlines to not allow their planes to take off with unidentified luggage on board.
Another accomplice at the destination airport is then notified and they grab the substitute luggage at the destination before it makes it onto the luggage carrousel. And, in case a drug-filled luggage is found, the blame shifts from the smugglers to the unfortunate person whose real luggage has been put aside and never arrives at the destination airport.
The traveler is detained while going through the long lines of Immigration giving the accomplices time to located the luggage and remove it from the airport. By the time the traveler go to the baggage claim and cannot find their original luggage, and the swapped luggage are no where to be found either.
The traveler goes to the airline office and files a missing baggage claim. They inform the traveler that the luggage was not placed on the plane, and they will see that it is put on the next available flight.
In twist of the story, they are also swapping traveler’s luggage for those filled with large amounts of cash to be smuggled from one country to another. In other instances, they entice aged travelers to unwittingly carry luggage as the elderly are not often suspected of carrying drugs. That is until recently, as authorities are now checking everyone from the elderly to even children in an effort to thwart smuggling.
Not an Uncommon Event
This is not an isolated event and it happens more often that the airlines or authorities want to admit. And, it has been happening for a long time. 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.
Mauricio Aranguren, a Colombian journalist knows the problem firsthand. He was held in a Mexican jail for 20 days after smugglers pulled a switch on him in 1995.
An agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who spent 2 1/2 years in the late 1990s working at Bogota’s El Dorado airport said there were five cocaine seizures involving bag-switching in the second half of 1999 alone.
One of the cases in 1999 involved Gustavo Medina, a Mexican industrial engineer who was held at Colombia’s airport in September after his baggage-claim check was found attached to a suitcase containing 80 pounds of cocaine. Eventually, the charges were dropped against Medina.
In October 2013, an elderly Australian couple who won a dream holiday trip to Canada were stunned when they returned home to find their suitcases contained 7kg of methamphetamine in rock form that had been loaded by a drug-running syndicate. Police said they were due to be met on arrival, resulting in a 38-year-old Canadian man being arrested at the airport.
In March of 2000 an Associated Press report told the story of the respected Colombian engineer, Leonardo Cardenas, who had been hired to lend his expertise to an important project at a Mexico City amusement park.
Cardenas 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 in Mexico City.
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 9 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.
Plight of Óscar Montes de Oca
This story might not have come to light if not for the Federal Authorities in Mexico whom sometimes thwart the accomplices efforts to recover the luggage. This is what happened when a 23-year old, Óscar Montes de Oca, decided to take a much earned vacation to Argentina after his graduation from university where he received a degree in sociology.
Montes de Oca returned to México on July 31 after his nine-day vacation in Argentina, traveling aboard the Colombian airline Avianca on a flight that took him to Perú and Colombia before landing at the Mexico City airport at 1:15 pm.
When the young man had boarded the flight in Argentina, his large green backpack was too large to fit in the overhead bin, so he checked it as luggage. Upon arrival at Mexico City, he cleared Immigration and went retrieve his backpack. When his large backpack did not arrive on the baggage carousel, he inquired at the Avianca office.
At that point he was approached by immigration authorities who presented him with a red, wheeled suitcase that wasn’t his. Montes de Oca insisted several times that it wasn’t his luggage, as he had checked a large green backpack. Further more, he insisted that the stickers identifying it as his luggage could have been easily swapped and that the total weight of the bag in question was 10 kilos more than what he had registered in Argentina, according to his receipts, which he showed the Custom authorities.
When he refused to open the suitcase, declaring once more that it wasn’t his, the officials opened it, went through its contents and found 20 kilograms of cocaine. Montes de Oca was immediately accused of smuggling and incarcerated in a federal facility. This was done in accordance with Federal law.
Later in the evening, unable to convince the authorities of his innocence, Montes de Oca was transported to the Attorney General’s office specializing in organized crime where, at 3:00am the following morning, he was finally given the chance to call his family. Later that day he was transported once more, this time to the federal penitentiary in Tepic, Nayarit.
Relatives and friends of Montes de Oca created an intense social media campaign, publicizing the case and demanding his liberation. Montes de Oca’s employer, Jorge Olvera, president of the Autonomous University of the State of México, condemned the arrest and provided the accused with legal aid, as did the governor of the state, Eruviel Ávila.
The legal aid staff, was able to attain a statement from Avianca, that indeed Montes de Oca’s green backpack, missing the airline stickers was found in the Lima, Peru airport. Avianca also presented documentation that the red, red, wheeled suitcase was indeed 10 kilos heavier than the bag that that Montes de Oca had checked in Argentina.
Finally, after seven days of imprisonment at federal penitentiary in Tepic, Nayarit, the Attorney General concluded that the Mexican traveler was the latest victim of a criminal organization that has swapped pieces of luggage in that same airport for months and ordered Montes de Oca be released. All charges were dropped and the young traveler was released from federal prison.
After his release Montes de Oca declared that the airline’s evidence was critical in clarifying his case. He also lamented that the Mexican justice system presumes everyone guilty until proven otherwise.
Montes de Oca believes authorities and airlines need to create robust security mechanisms that can guarantee that a passenger’s luggage will not be swapped or tampered with while in transit. In the meantime, he suggests travelers take a selfie with their luggage and its labels before check-in.
He is now considering legal action against the institutions that falsely accused and imprisoned him. His father has already made a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission.
The DEA and Colombian police have found significant corruption at Bogota’s airport, according to the DEA agent formerly assigned there. The agent stated that 40 employees, from baggage handlers to caterers, were identified as suspects in cocaine seizures. However, they were able to gather enough proof to arrest only five of the suspects. Unfortunately, those arrested will be replaced by the Suitcase Cartel immediately.
What you can do
Obviously, no traveler would want to go through what Óscar Montes de Oca and Leonardo Cardenas, as well as countless others were forced to endure. Here are a few tips that will help you:
1. Do not check your luggage. While this is not always possible, you should consider traveling as light as possible. By carrying your luggage on board, you avoid having it misplaced or swapped en route.
2. When you are checking in have some take a photo (or take a selfie) of yourself standing in front of the check in desk, showing the you, the attendant, the baggage on the scale with the documentation tags on the bags.
3. Take a close up of the bags that show the attached documentation. This will help to show that the documentation stickers were moved to another bag.
4. Passengers can have their luggage sealed in recyclable, transparent polythene to protect it from scratches, moisture or any form of tampering. This service is available at most international airports. While it will not prevent documentation swapping to another bag, it does prevent someone from placing drugs into your bag.
5. Keep your luggage with you at all times, and do not leave it unattended, even for a moment. This is all it takes for someone to place a kilo or more of drugs into your bag unbeknownst to you.