Drug Trafficking by Air: The Lessons for Aviation Security

Drug Trafficking by Air: The Lessons for Aviation Security

Aviation was, and often still is, the drug smuggler’s transportation mode of choice. Eugene Gerstein offers a look at the world of drug trafficking and, based on the huge successes of intervention by customs and other security agencies in stemming the flow of such activity, he offers advice for aviation security professionals as to how they too can use similar methods of detection to identify weapons and explosives which might be used to target the industry.

The golden age of drug trafficking by air began in the 1970s with drug mules flying on a daily basis into the US from Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. Whilst this was glorified in the media (motion pictures, television series, books, articles, etc.), the harsh reality was that the avsec world was woefully unprepared to deal with the ever-increasing tide of illicit drug smuggling.

It has been a long-held belief (and a fairly accurate one) that drug smuggling is being used to finance terrorism (this is clearly stated in ICAO’s Aviation Security Manual). After all, Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror in Colombia was financed by drugs, so we don’t have to dig too deeply into history in order to find a relevant source.

“…ICAO was never overly helpful with regards to guidelines regarding screening for narcotics…”

At the same time, ICAO was never overly helpful with regards to guidelines on screening for narcotics. As per the Aviation Security Manual, 8973 in its various versions, ICAO wants IFSOs (in-flight security officers or ‘air marshals’) to be trained to recognise drug traffickers, however it is mute on what to do if such people are indeed recognised. A section on preventive security measures simply calls for the prevention of using company aircraft to transport illicit drugs and, whilst there are some good points, such as matching baggage to passengers and ensuring an aircraft is secure from tampering, it is still very vague (and colour-coded baggage tags, as suggested in 8973/9 Appendix 25, section 6 (b) (viii), never really happened, as it was and remains, amongst other considerations, impractical to upgrade all of the baggage tag printing equipment to colour). Annex 9 makes things a little clearer: ICAO wants the individual states to facilitate narcotics control with regards to civil aviation, effectively saying that this should be dealt with first and foremost by the state, and not, as I see it, by frontline avsec employees.

The Culprits and Why They Do It

Drug smuggling comes in many shapes; from items smuggled airside and subsequently onto aircraft by authorised employees, and the more mundane carrying of items by passengers, be it in their checked luggage destined for the hold, in their carry-ons, on their person, and, quite often, inside their bodies.

When it comes to drugs being smuggled by baggage handlers, the first image conjured up is that of greedy, unscrupulous individuals who are looking to profit and/or supplement their incomes in any way possible. Unfortunately, the harsh reality of organised crime is often different. Take Colombia as an example: The Colombian baggage tag switching ploy is a known tactic whereby baggage tags are taken from legitimate checked bags, attached onto bags containing drugs (brought airside illegally), and then picked up by criminals on arrival in the destination country. If suspected or simply spooked, they abandon the bags, and if they are discovered by the authorities, the original baggage tag owner is in trouble. After a few high profile cases involving arrests of unsuspecting passengers, especially on flights to Spain, steps were taken to offer video evidence from the check-in counters at the point of origin for proper baggage reconciliation, and to prove that the person whose name is on the baggage tag actually checked in a different bag.

The baggage handlers (and other employees with airside access) who do this often don’t do so for financial rewards, but because they are threatened by drug cartels, with their families being held almost as hostages. There are multiple anecdotal and real world stories of violence perpetrated against the families of those with access to the airside, just to keep these individuals scared and cooperative.

Of course, there are many, many stories of people with airside access repeatedly committing crimes for personal gain. Take, for example, the famous case of the former head of security at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport, who was caught facilitating the smuggling of a kilogram of heroin, which a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent said he had hidden inside a laptop (this is in addition to a plot, by the same individual, to smuggle large quantities of heroin into the United States). Then there is the story of the JetBlue flight attendant who was ferrying drugs all across the United States, the recent Trinidad scandals (one of which involved a ground handling staff member and someone from the avsec team), and the recent seizure of nearly 118kg of cocaine at Pearson Airport in Toronto – the list is very long and it never really ends.

Yet the most common type of smuggler is, of course, the seemingly regular passenger, presenting a tremendous challenge to the avsec industry. This is because many, if not most screeners out there are not properly trained to detect drugs and often lack the technology that could assist them. In addition, legislation is often insufficient, and sometimes non-existent.

Methods of Detection

Pat Down

The most utilised method for drug detection is a manual pat down, and yet it often fails to produce results. Years ago, I witnessed the pat down of a suspect in a major European airport. Nothing was found even though we knew he had drugs on him. The man was arrested despite the screener’s failure to find anything unusual, and in a subsequent interview he intimated that he had hidden the drugs in his underwear and during the pat down they had become dislodged and fallen into the leg of his jeans. Since the jeans were baggy, the screener failed to properly check the suspect’s ankles; an area found to be commonly overlooked during pat downs due to screener fatigue, the difficulty of bending down and overall lack of training.

Of course, no amount of pat downs will help to identify drugs that are swallowed or hidden in various orifices, however, I will return to this specific issue later whilst discussing technology.

Behavioural Analysis

Before hopping on board the technology train, it is very important to mention profiling. It is no secret to anyone who has ever travelled to Latin America, as an example, that certain countries are very aggressive in their attempts to curb drug trafficking. In Venezuela, many passengers are subjected to separate screening by counter-narcotics teams. In Colombia, the Colombian National Police have gone a step further, and employ profiling techniques at major airports, combined with the increasing use of advanced technological equipment. Whilst these steps are still in their infancy, it is a part of a broader trend worldwide, which demonstrates that things can get better.

“…in Venezuela, many passengers are subjected to separate screening by counter-narcotics teams…”

Transmission X-ray

It is often not easy to single out the passenger who has swallowed drugs or has drugs hidden in body cavities, unless the person exhibits signs of distress or unusual nervousness (which can be for a variety of reasons). Swallowed drugs present a special challenge, as usually there is no clear evidence, and no easy way to screen the person for contraband. That is, unless the airport has invested in transmission X-ray technology, such as the equipment manufactured by Adani Systems or OD Security. The individual being screened is directed to stand on a small, moving platform, which goes through an archway. Within seconds, the operator gets a clear picture of whether the person has any unusual objects inside their body, be it in the stomach or any cavities. The use of such systems allows for rapid discovery of contraband, and in some ways, improves passenger facilitation – after all, if the scan is clear then the passenger can continue their journey without any invasive procedures. There are potential privacy issues associated with the use of such technology. However, this is a complex subject that can be endlessly debated – after all, security and privacy go hand in hand, even if they are often considered to be mutually exclusive.

Canine Detection

Canines are routinely used at airports for the detection of drugs
Canines are routinely used at airports for the detection of drugs

Hold baggage (and carry-on baggage for that matter) presents a unique challenge, as even with advanced screening equipment, it is often not easy to discover drugs. Traditionally, sniffer dogs were – and still are – deployed to look for drugs (this is in addition to explosive detection dogs, as ICAO very clearly states that the same dog cannot be used for both purposes). However valuable an asset a dog is, studies have demonstrated that a dog that alerts hundreds of times will be wrong dozens of times, so the percentage of failures can be significant. Additionally, most problems with sniffer dogs occur not because of the dog, but because the handler is tired and fails to properly engage the dog.

Chemical Trace Detection Systems

Chemical trace detection (CTD), however, has a clear advantage over canine detection in that it is capable of identifying many more substances than a dog can, and the fatigue of a device’s operator has a lot less impact on results than the fatigue of a dog handler.

Many, if not most, people think of CTD systems in terms of explosive detection, and an important and often underutilised function of many of these devices is narcotics detection. Whilst most of the well-known trace detection manufacturers utilise similar methods, such as swabbing, and basic ‘sniffing’, an exciting company in Canada – TeknoScan Systems Inc. – is revolutionising hold baggage and cargo screening using a method called ‘natural aspiration’, which utilises high-volume sampling (think of a big vacuum cleaner, collecting vast quantities of particles from the air) to provide simultaneous vapour and particle sampling. In addition to capturing vapour samples from threat substances, this method also allows the capture of microscopic airborne particles floating in the air inside a checked bag (or a box) and finally a ULD-3, increasing the probability of detection. If a ULD-3 test comes back positive, each bag inside can be rapidly sampled until the correct one is identified. The same system can be used for rapidly screening an aircraft’s cargo hold when connected to a plane’s rear ventilation dump valve, allowing for rapid screening of the hold without any impact on aircraft turnaround times and regular operations.

CTD systems complement imaging systems, allowing the detection of narcotics (and other contraband) in non-threat items – in other words, drugs hidden inside various goods and objects.

Whilst there are some tall-order success stories, such as finding three grams of heroin stored inside a plastic bag hidden inside a 40ft sea-going container, realistic expectations for detection (based on packaging – after all, technology is not a magic wand) are around 250g of cocaine in a regular sized piece of luggage, 100g of cocaine in a box (regardless of whether it is a cardboard box or a plastic container), and around 1kg of cocaine inside a ULD-3 container. The same devices are often capable of simultaneously discovering explosives and various other substances (in many cases, narcotics detection was introduced as an add-on feature to supplement explosives detection).


All of the issues, methods, stories and evidence described above impart a number of important lessons: we, the avsec community, need proper training (and perhaps proper legislation to mandate such training), to embrace various profiling techniques, and better access to advanced technology. Whilst we need to be vigilant, we also need the right tools to help us along the way. Better education of the population also goes a long way in reducing drug trafficking, and lengthy prison sentences and even (often protested) executions serve as powerful deterrents. At the same time, there are always those who will risk everything, and those who are being unwittingly used, so drug smuggling continues to be a never-ending cycle.

As the old adage goes, ‘where there is a will, there is a way’, which is why everything comes down to proper planning, processes and procedures, and the individual screeners – the often under-appreciated frontline defenders in the fight against global drug trafficking.

Eugene Gerstein is the business development director for Westminster Aviation Security Services Ltd.
Eugene Gerstein

Eugene Gerstein is the business development director for Westminster Aviation Security Services Ltd. With over 20 years of experience in 42 countries across the globe, he has worked on large international infrastructure projects, primarily in the airport and defence industries, as well as having spent years in avsec and ground operations. Prior to his commercial activities, Eugene was a military officer and served in law enforcement, involved in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism task forces. He can be contacted at e.gerstein@wass-ltd.com.