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SQUAD CONTROLLING AIRPORT DRUG TRAFFIC.

Byline: Douglas Haberman Daily News Staff Writer

Burbank Airport has become a national distribution hub for narcotics from Southern California, according to a task force that has seized $31 million in drugs since 1995.

Some drug smugglers and couriers have used the relatively small San Fernando Valley airport as an alternative to Los Angeles International Airport because they assume it imposes lighter security, agents said Tuesday.

But since 1995, a specially deployed team has captured more than 232 pounds of cocaine, 1,760 pounds of marijuana and 14.5 pounds of methamphetamine. The team also has confiscated small quantities of other illegal drugs at the airport, including heroin.

``We feel we've made a significant impact at that airport,'' said Jim Christian, a special agent in charge with the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and director of the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force.

``Word is out it's not a path of least resistance,'' Christian said.

That's important progress in a region notoriously awash in narcotics, officials said. ``Los Angeles is a hub for drugs, like Detroit is for cars,'' said Sharon Carter, Los Angeles spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Seizures at Burbank hit a high the first year of the task force, in 1995, because dealers were caught unaware, Christian said. Since then, he said, the amount of drugs confiscated has fluctuated.

A mid-1995 threat by Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to blow up a plane flying out of LAX led to tightened security at Burbank and other airports, forcing smugglers to find alternate methods of transport, he said.

By 1996, dealers became aware of a crackdown on narcotics shipments at Burbank Airport, causing a drop in their numbers and volume, he said.

However, not all dealers have caught on to the Burbank team's activities yet, Christian said. The Burbank team has seized twice as many pounds of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana in 1997-98 as the year before, according to its figures.

Despite Burbank's popularity, the larger Los Angeles International remains the leader in drug seizures among airports in Southern California.

Confiscations at LAX in the past three years included 1,665 pounds of cocaine, 28,160 pounds of marijuana and 182.6 pounds of methamphetamine. LAX counted more than 524,000 airline flights carrying more than 60.1 million passengers in 1997, airport officials said.

Burbank had 4.7 million passengers take 58,418 airline flights in 1997, airport officials said.

Regardless of how many agents are pressed into service, they say airlines are expected to remain tools of smuggling.

``It's a means of quickly transporting drugs in a convenient manner,'' said Los Angeles Police Department senior supervising Detective Dan Sullivan.

The Burbank Airport team is among Los Angeles County law enforcement programs that will benefit from an annual federal grant for narcotics-related efforts, recently announced as $7.3 million for this fiscal year, local officials said.

The airport team will split $500,000 with another team that targets clandestine methamphetamine laboratories in the county.

DRUG SEIZURES AT BURBANK AIRPORT

Drugs with a street value of as much as $31.1 million have been confiscated at Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport by an enforcement team since early 1995:

Cocaine:

1995 192 lbs.

1996 12.6 lbs

1997 27.9 lbs

Marijuana:

1995 699 lbs.

1996 294.5 lbs.

1997 767 lbs.

Methamphetamine:

1995 12.9 lbs.

1996 0.5 lbs.

1997 1.1 lbs.

Note: 1995 period includes March to December 1996 and 1997 are fiscal-year data.

SOURCE: Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Chart

PHOTO (Color) Drug-sniffing dog Fergie is in the special anti-drug unit at Burbank Airport.

Hans Gutknecht/Daily News

CHART: DRUG SEIZURES AT BURBANK AIRPORT (see text)

Dionisio Munoz/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 15, 1998
Words:621
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