Flight attendants use security privileges to smuggle millions in drug money out of US: federal prosecutors

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EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Federal agents hauled a flight attendant out of New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport as they broke up an international money laundering ring that prosecutors allege smuggled $8 million in drug-related proceeds out of the U.S. by taking advantage of flight crews’ easy airport access.

Four airline employees, three from New York and another from New Jersey, are accused of taking a cut of each shipment as they snuck it through special employee-access lanes at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints and onto flights bound for the Dominican Republic.

The suspects all had special clearance with the TSA under the Known Crewmember Program, or KCM. Airline employees with KCM status have a separate, expedited security lane and face less scrutiny, according to federal prosecutors.

“In effect, given these loosened security procedures, KCM privileges allow flight attendants to bypass airport security with large quantities of cash without that cash being seized,” the federal criminal complaint reads.

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Charlie Hernandez, 42, Sarah Valerio Pujols, 42, Emmanuel Torres, 34, and Jarol Fabio 35, each face federal felony charges of operating an unlicensed money transmission business and violating airport security requirements.

“As alleged, the defendants knowingly smuggled large amounts of illicit money linked to the sale of narcotics, to include fentanyl, and took advantage of airport security checkpoints by using their trusted positions as flight attendants,” Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Ivan Arvelo said Wednesday. “This investigation has exposed critical vulnerabilities in the airline security industry and has illuminated methods that narcotics traffickers are utilizing.”

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They allegedly used the code word “lotions” to mean drug cash and allegedly checked in with their handlers for cargo in advance of flights to the Caribbean nation and referred to the smuggling ring’s drug-dealing clients as “los tigres,” Spanish for “the tigers.” When referring to “stuff,” they meant the drugs, including fentanyl, that led to the illicit proceeds.

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Hernandez is accused of smuggling at least $2.5 million between 2014 and 2019, according to court documents. In that same span, Pujols allegedly transported at least $1.5 million on flights to the Dominican Republic. Both Torres and Fabio are accused of smuggling more than $1.5 million apiece between 2015 and last year and face up to 15 years in prison.

In exchange for getting the cash through TSA checkpoints, they each allegedly received a small cut – around $1,000 to $2,000 per $60,000 smuggled.

Plane takes off from JFK with NYC skyline in background

“As alleged, these flight attendants smuggled millions of dollars of drug money and law enforcement funds that they thought was drug money from the United States to the Dominican Republic over many years by abusing their privileges as airline employees,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said in a statement.

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Hernandez also faces conspiracy charges, bringing his maximum prison sentence to 20 years. Pujols faces the same conspiracy charge and an additional count of bulk cash smuggling, increasing her maximum possible penalty to 25 years behind bars if convicted.

JFK Flight Attendant escorted out of airport by federal Homeland Security Investigations Agents

She had been fired by her employer, an unspecified international airline, in 2019. Customs and Border Protection agents allegedly found $60,000 in undeclared cash in her purse during a check on Dec. 20 of that year, according to the complaint.

Homeland Security Investigations and the NYPD began investigating an international drug trafficking and money laundering ring in 2018, leading them to an informant identified in court documents as “Cooperating Witness 1,” who sold out his alleged mules.

After CBP agents stopped Pujols, the informant told federal investigators that Hernandez had another $60,000 which is currently unaccounted for.

Fox News’ Bonny Chu contributed to this report.

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