Ammunition shipment smuggled on LanChile flight
Homeland security officials are investigating how a shipment of ammunition was illegally transported from Miami International Airport in the hold of a passenger plane without being identified until it arrived in Quito, Ecuador last month.
The shipment, labeled as computer parts but which actually contained 12,000 rounds of ammunition, was carried onboard a Sept. 17 LanChile flight. It was discovered five days later by Ecuadorian authorities during a routine search of imports at a Customs warehouse on airport grounds, according to LanChile officials.
A company spokesperson at airline headquarters in Santiago, Chile, said two employees for local cargo agent Transoceanica were arrested in Quito for suspected involvement in the smuggling effort.
LanEcuador, part of the LanChile group, first disclosed the incident on its Spanish-language Web site Sept. 25. The South American airline owns 40 percent of LanEcuador, which wet leases aircraft and service from the parent company and sells passenger space. LanChile is responsible for selling the belly capacity and handling the cargo, a company official in Ecuador explained.
The incident raises questions about the system for securing the 22 percent of all air cargo that is loaded on passenger planes in the United States each year, and is likely to be cited as further evidence of lax cargo security by critics who argue that all cargo, along with luggage placed on passenger aircraft, must be physically screened by explosives detection machines. The primary cargo defense for passenger aircraft right now is the 'known shipper' program, which relies on direct and indirect carriers to accept shipments only from customers with a history of repeat shipments, or who sign contracts for carriage over a period of time rather than making infrequent spot shipments. Earlier in September a man had himself boxed and shipped as cargo marked as computer monitors.
Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Lauren Stover confirmed that the agency is investigating the matter. Agents are still trying to exactly determine who shipped the ammunition and falsified the manifest, who received it and how it got on the plane undetected, she said. Still unclear is whether Ecuadorian authorities notified TSA about the confiscation.
LanChile officials identified the shipper as Fenix Airways International Inc., a Miami-based indirect air carrier or freight forwarder. Indirect air carriers don't operate planes themselves, but instead consolidate shipments from multiple customers and directly book space with airlines. Stover said agents found a second shipment of weapons rounds in Miami that had yet to be transported.
Fenix officials could not be reached for comment because the phone line was disconnected.
Ammunition can be transported on passenger planes as long as it is properly declared, Stover said. In this case, however, the contents were masked by a false airway bill. LanChile officials said they had no reason to suspect the shipment since all documentation appeared in order and Fenix was a TSA-approved freight forwarder.