Thursday, July 17, 2008

Recollections of a baggage handler....

- Ever seen 6,000 pounds of cocaine in one place? [raises hand] Air Panama DC-8, gift-wrapped in streamers of yellow crime scene tape, parked next door to our office. The three tons of coke were stuffed into freezers in the cargo hold. Feds crawled all over everybody for weeks. I used to work the midnight shift, and so got quite familiar with many of the charter pilots who were in and out in the wee hours of the morning, on their "cargo" flights to the Bahamas. Imagine my shock when one of them handed me a kilo of cocaine one night, just because I was always polite and courteous to him (hell, I was polite and courteous to everybody; some scary folks frequented north side). He was quite insistent, but I managed to refuse it without, thank Christ, upsetting him. A kilo of fucking coke...after all these years I still can't believe that one.

- A DC-3 crew I knew was hauling live cattle to the Bahamas when they developed engine problems and were gazing with interest at the altimeter and the approaching ocean surface. The captain ordered them to either jettison some weight fast or experience what is euphemistically called a "water landing". The only thing that scares a pilot more than ditching is an in-flight fire. So they opened the cargo door and started herding the cattle out at 3,000 feet. Thank God the SPCA never heard about it. I mean, they had no choice; it was either the livestock, or aircraft, crew, and the livestock. But they were laughing so hard when they described the cows ambling placidly out the door, mooing in terror all the way down as they realized they were falling, then hitting the water and skipping for a hundred meters or so...I could only shake my head and think to myself that there are people who find amusement in the most fucked-up things. Could be that it was just a reaction to their brush with disaster, but still...

- There used to be a McDonald's near the terminal (there was one in the terminal as well) that was only accessible to airport personnel. Went there one lunchtime only to see the place crawling with DEA and Metro SWAT; the place was a popular meeting spot for making drug deals and about thirty ground crew were busted, mostly cargo handlers for a number of South American airlines that frequented Miami. Micky D's were not amused by the reputational hit, and closed the place post-haste.

- Ever wondered what really happened to your "lost" luggage? I was driving on one of the internal access roads one night when I got stuck behind a cargo tug towing maybe 10 luggage carts (in gross contravention of regs; max allowed was 3). The carts were on caster wheels and were whipping all over the road, when sure enough, a shitload of suitcases came flying off one of them, and before I could stop the van, I had squashed about a dozen of them. I was horrified, but the tug driver was completely unfazed, and told me not to worry about it, they'd just do the usual: report them as "lost luggage" and dump them. He was union, therefore, for all intents and purposes, untouchable. The very next night at almost the same spot, a hairpin curve around the north runway near the Eastern hangars, I saw some luggage carts and cargo containers in the stagnant waters of the canal that ran alongside the access road. The containers bobbing gently in the water (out of which large turtles regularly emerged and wandered across the runways, halting flight operations until animal control could police them up) were filled with a fortune in designer jeans. The unperturbed cargo guys were actually laughing as they competed to come up with the most plausible story. The cargo was insured, but in my time at MIA I saw enormous amounts of personal luggage damaged or destroyed through negligence and/or incompetence, all of which was reported as "lost", and eligible for only a nominal compensation. It was mind-boggling. So now you know what you've only suspected all along.

- Then there was the guy who used to fly in every weekend from Key West, where he lived. He had retired in his mid-twenties from charter flying, and owned three airplanes, some exotic cars, and a bunch of motorcycles. He and some buddies in the Keys made enormous amounts of money by going out at night in their powerboats (Cigarettes, naturally) and simply scavenging up bales of marijuana that cargo ships had jettisoned when accosted by U.S. Coast Guard helos. They refused to touch cocaine, and sold the pot at wholesale prices to dealers in Miami. As an indication of the amount of drugs coming into Florida at the time, he told me that on several occasions the ocean 15 miles out was so choked with plastic-wrapped bales, that they could walk across them to each others' boats without getting their feet wet.

- I could go on and on: about the crew I knew who worked in greasy mechanic's coveralls, and drove home in Ferraris and Lamborghinis; the large population of jackrabbits for which MIA was famous (you'd see them everywhere at night, but nobody knew where they hid out in the daytime); the large (10-12 ft) gators that would emerge from the canals about twice a year and bring everything to a screeching halt until animal control wrangled them into a truck; the charter owners three doors down who skipped one night, just before the feds swooped in. I saw them again months later on our ramp, in handcuffs, boarding Con Air, a U.S. Marshall Service Boeing 727. They waved to me and bummed some cigarettes, while their friends who had come to see them off to federal penitentiary popped Dom Perignon in their honor. After a short time at MIA, personally witnessing the floods of cocaine coming through just one port of entry, it became apparent to me that the so-called "War on Drugs" was a joke, and the government was fully aware of it. The talk of stemming the flow, of plugging the sources, of dismantling the cartels and taking down their leaders, was, and remains, hopeless fiction. Drugs are not being pushed into this country, they are being pulled in, by America's insatiable demand, and the drug trade will exist as long as the demand remains.

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