By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two former baggage handlers who prosecutors say used their security credentials to help a nationwide drug ring smuggle "samples" of cocaine through Los Angeles International Airport were arrested on drug trafficking charges on Monday.
Adrian Ponce, 27, and Alberto Preciado Gutierrez, 26, were each charged in federal court in Los Angeles with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said.
"These defendants are charged with abusing their privileged access on behalf of drug dealers," Decker said in a statement. "This case is yet another example of employees associated with airports assisting drug traffickers."
According to prosecutors, Ponce and Preciado are accused of helping couriers smuggle one-kilogram (2.2 lbs) "samples" of cocaine onto commercial airliners at LAX to distribute to customers on the East Coast.
Law enforcement agents seized a kilogram from Preciado in December as he was delivering it to an alleged drug courier in an LAX terminal restroom, prosecutors said.
Under questioning by law enforcement officers, Ponce, who had been waiting for Preciado outside the terminal, admitted to working with a large-scale drug supplier, according to prosecutors
Ponce told authorities that Preciado would typically give the samples to couriers once they had passed through normal airport security, prosecutors said. If the East Coast customers approved of the samples, 100-kilogram shipments would be delivered by the drug ring using trucks driven across the country.
If convicted of the charges, both men face 10 years to life in federal prison.
In March a JetBlue flight attendant who ran from an LAX terminal moments before a search of her luggage turned up 66 pounds (30 kg) of cocaine was arrested in New York. Marsha Reynolds, 31, was charged with possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute the drug.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Dan Grebler)