Gangs at the Airport

Airport security means more than just checking passengers for identification and contraband. It should begin with all the airport and airline employees.

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"We supported the TSA initiative and still do. We certainly respect the flight attendants' perspective on cabin safety, but it's not scissors that are bringing down airplanes today."—David Castelveter, Federal Aviation Administration

Just a couple of years ago, a good friend recommended me as a gang expert to a Seattle/Tacoma television news team. This news team was working on a story about an emergency landing of a commercial passenger jet operated by Alaskan Airlines.

The jet had experienced a sudden decompression problem while in the air. During the investigation it was discovered that a luggage loading conveyor belt had been driven into the side of the plane near the cargo hold doors damaging the plane slightly. This resulted in the sudden decompression during the flight. I am sure this was a scary experience for the passengers and crew. But I think a more dangerous situation was discovered when the cargo hold was opened.

Investigators found the entire interior surfaces of the cargo hold were covered with graffiti. Over the cargo doors a huge smoking marijuana joint was depicted with the words "The reason for the delays." Typical crude references to drugs and sex could be found, but the news crew was primarily interested and requested my gang expert interpretation of what appeared to be gang graffiti.

Alaskan Air Lines denied immediately any gang connections to the graffiti. The airlines security advisors also claimed that the graffiti was harmless and not really gang related. Airline officials said that this complaint was something arising from a labor dispute.

The TV news investigative Reporters found that the airline had recently displaced their professional airline employee baggage handlers with a less expensive independent contractor who now provided the baggage handler service. According to many of the airline employees, some of these new people looked and acted like gang members.

Photographs of the cargo hold interior were shown to me and I identified several SeaTac gang references. California gang graffiti was also very prominent. I recognized both Crip and Blood gang graffiti. But the most disturbing gang graffiti was the Hispanic Norteno and Sureno gang signs and cross outs.

While interpreting the drug and gang signs and references, I began pointing out to the investigative reporters some of the dangers that this graffiti would suggest.

First, the people employed to load luggage on the plane were drug users and some graffiti suggested "slangers" or drug dealers. This meant they had exclusive access to airline cargo holds, which they could use to transport drugs. Because of the flagrant manner in which these employees displayed their drug and gang graffiti, they were obviously poorly supervised. This job could be a gang drug dealer's paradise.

Second, you have to wonder just who did the security background on these new employees. If one was done, I doubted its accuracy and thoroughness. And I doubt if one was even done at all. Few hard core gang members can obtain and maintain real jobs with any consistency. However, a few are, at least temporarily, on someone's time sheets.

I have attempted to find employment for gang members who wished to try the working man's ways. I might recommend a "former" gang member for a job as a construction worker, welder, landscaper, mechanic, or a sanitation engineer. However, I would never recommend an active gang member for a job that gave him unsupervised access to the belly of a beast whose maintenance and security is relied upon to secure the lives of 200 people 30,000 feet in the air.

But the greatest concern for me was the fact that I identified several rival gangs among the graffiti painted on the interior walls of the cargo hold. I recognized active gangs with long histories of gang violence and wanton disregard for the safety of non-gang members.

Killing innocent civilians in order to attack their gang rivals is unfortunately common among these gangs. During the Cali Cartel's war against its gang rivals and the Colombian government, Pablo Escobar is known to have had his gang plant bombs in commercial aircraft and blow them out of the sky, just to kill one man.

I told the investigative reporter that I would expect these employees who claimed these bitter gang rivalries to eventually bring their conflict on to the airport grounds, maybe even to the aircraft.

The news team seemed surprised. I was told that a loaded pistol had recently been found on the airport tarmac. It was my turn to be surprised. "But how could a loaded firearm get past the heavy post 9/11 security measures?" I asked. The answer was that since the baggage handlers were contracted employees they did not pass through the security checkpoints that the rest of us must endure. Since then I have found that this not an exclusive problem with only this airline or this airport.

Are you or your loved ones traveling by air somewhere soon? Are you allowed to fly while armed? Will you wait in long lines to be screened by the TSA agents at the security checkpoints? Will you empty your pockets, take off your shoes, and have your luggage "sniffed" for explosives?

Airport security means more than just checking passengers for identification and contraband. It should begin with all the airport and airline employees. Ignoring the gang members working maintenance, at the food court, and handling your luggage is a formula for future disaster.

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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