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A thorn among the roses.

A Thorn Among The Roses

THE AIR CARGO BUSINESS HAS frequently been the target of choice for smugglers attempting to ship drugs from Colombia to the United States. Since the federal Omnibus Drug Act of 1986 was enacted, airlines have been opting increasingly for computer technology to discover contraband being smuggled in from Latin American and Caribbean countries. The Omnibus Drug Act has made the airlines responsible for contraband smuggled on their planes by increasing fines from $50 to $1,000 an ounce for cocaine. The act further required that carriers exercise greater precautions to prevent their aircraft from being used as conduits for drug traffickers.

Flowers are the cargo most frequently used by Colombian drug smugglers. Flowers are also the main cargo for Tampa Air, a 15-year-old operator of a fleet of Boeing 707s whose home base is Medellin, Colombia. Medellin is also the home base for a drug cartel responsible for an estimated 80 tons of the 100 tons of cocaine smuggled annually into the United States. Tampa Air brings four planeloads a day--8,000 palletized boxes of fresh-cut roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums--into the United States.

Because it considered itself particularly vulnerable to cargo tampering, Tampa Air invested in a half-million-dollar security system--a combination of closed-circuit television (CCTV) site security and computer-aided, advanced, low-dose X-ray scanners similar to those used in medical diagnostics. The equipment was installed both in Miami and Medellin, allowing the security staff to view via satellite all of the system's activities in both locations.

"It was a big investment," says Rex Wheeler, Tampa Air's security director in Miami at the time of the purchase. "But we saw it as one that was necessary to our growth and survival if we weren't to suffer the same consequences as Avianca." Avianca had more than $13 million in fines levied against it by US Customs officials after 14 loads of cocaine totaling more than two tons were found aboard some of its aircraft at Miami International Airport--most of it hidden among flowers.

CUSTOMS PROCEDURES VARY IN EACH country. In Colombia, customs inspections of flower boxes consist of random samplings. In addition, the company numbers and weighs each box electronically. These weights are then compared to those at the embarkation point on arrival in the United States. In case of discrepancies, company officials--who are not permitted to open the boxes--notify US Customs, who then open the boxes for inspection. Using this procedure, the company's penalty for having contraband aboard can be reduced or eliminated.

US Customs inspects a percentage of incoming cargo. In the case of flowers shipments, random boxes are also inspected by the US Department of Agriculture for insects. In addition, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement organizations may find evidence of contraband after the boxes have been removed from the company's loading docks. Flowers are taken from the aircraft in pallets, then removed from the pallets and placed on conveyor belts. This procedure takes place in guarded and CCTV-monitored areas. If a box from the plane does not reach the conveyor, the incident will have been recorded on CCTV for law enforcement review.

The boxes on the conveyor next enter the computer-aided X-ray system. The scanning system purchased by Tampa Air allows a security specialist to operate the conveyor belt from the remote security room where the CCTV surveillance monitors are located. The system permits security to view the flower boxes and other cargo from the side and top and in adjustable variations of pseudocolor or black and white.

Each view on the monitor can be frozen for inspection and stored in memory for reference. The scanner works on the same principle applied in medical diagnostics. An object such as luggage or freight is scanned line by line as it moves down the conveyor. A fan-shaped, collimated X-ray beam simultaneously penetrates the object and is intercepted by an L-shaped detector array. The images are electrically stored, digitized, and subsequently assembled to form a complete picture on the monitor screen in real time. With a conveyor speed of 60 feet per minute, the two scanners at Tampa Air allow for a throughput of approximately 20 boxes per minute per scanner. This gives the carrier a screening capacity of 24,000 boxes in a typical 10-hour shift.

According to one Tampa Air security specialist: "With the side and top angles I can catch anything going through that shouldn't be. I can stop the conveyor, magnify the monitor image to twice its size, and scrutinize the object more closely. Then the choice of color and black-and-white variable resolutions will tell me the difference between substances that might be mistaken for one another, such as ice and cocaine."

The X-ray scanning system uses sophisticated image-processing algorithms based on a user's requirements. The system's X-ray detectors are solid-state silicon photodiodes combined with cesium iodide scintillation crystals. This process produces highly efficient detection with reduced X-ray dosages and no leakage, thereby protecting security personnel. In addition, this system extends the photodiode service life to a minimum of five years of continuous operation. The scanner is able to see through half-inch steel plate and detect plastic weapons, such as Glock 17 or plastique.

Since the installation of Tampa Air's new security system, the American-owned, Miami-based Challenge Air Cargo Inc., also engaged in the transport of cut flowers, arranged for the same type of electronic surveillance and scanner system to augment the $100,000 per year already spent on security officers. Challenge Air Cargo is the only carrier to Colombia not yet fined by the US government, and their management wants to keep it that way.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Tampa Air's security system thwarts Colombian drug smugglers
Author:Glockman, Walter
Publication:Security Management
Date:May 1, 1989
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