On 27 November 1989, Avianca Flight 203 departed from El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia for a domestic flight to Cali’s Alfonso Aragón International Airport. Moments after take-off, the aircraft exploded, killing all 107 passengers and crew as well as three bystanders on the ground. It was concluded that the explosion was caused by an IED (improvised explosive device) activated by an unwitting Colombian cartel member – a ‘mule.’ On the 30th anniversary of the disaster, Matthew Porcelli explains how proper security awareness techniques and behavioural profiling can assist in identifying mule(s) and help prevent such catastrophic incidents.
Air travel is regarded as one of the safest forms of travel. Every day thousands of flights span across the globe delivering leisure and business travellers to their destinations. Once onboard a civilian airliner, most passengers’ (and crew) awareness of those seated around them is measured in terms of elbow room and residual space for carry-on baggage, rather than in making security and safety assessments. Probability of risk variables are practically non-existent once the cabin door closes.
Behavioural red flags are at a much higher level in 2019 than they were in 1989. A person deemed ‘suspicious’ on an airliner three decades ago would not merit as much attention or assessment as they would today. With dozens of high-profile aviation-related acts of terrorism and violence having taken place since the late 1980s, airline passengers are considerably more likely to notify airline staff if something does not feel right. Unfortunately, we will never know whether those on board Avianca Flight 203 did notice any red flags that fateful Monday morning.
Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport, Avianca Flight #203’s port of origin, serves as the departure point for many foreign and domestic flights. Flight #203 was a scheduled domestic flight to Alfonso Aragón International Airport in Cali. On that late November morning in 1989, the Boeing 727 departed at 07:11 and was ascending through an altitude of 13,000 feet when it exploded over the town of Soacha, just outside of Bogotá. The catastrophe was one of two linked attacks orchestrated by one of the most feared drug lords in South America – the leader of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar. A little over a week after Flight #203’s demise the Department of Administrative Security (Columbia’s equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) was attacked when a school bus carrying a large amount of dynamite detonated outside the facility killing over seventy people, which included children playing outside the local day care. Although the attacks were orchestrated by the same cartel, what set both apart were that the passengers and crew on Flight #203 were in the immediate vicinity of a ‘mule’ before the attack.
The term ‘mule’ is synonymous with narco-trafficking. Cartels recruit mules to smuggle narcotics across domestic and international boarders as well as have them unwittingly commit deadly acts against intended targets. Flight #203 did indeed carry such a mule, however it was not with the intent to smuggle illegal drugs. Jaime Carrera, recruited by the Medellin Cartel, was hired by the cartel’s leader, Pablo Escobar, and promised large sums of money and care for his infant daughter and wife if he recorded a conversation while aboard Flight #203. However, naivety was the key trait which Carrera and the rest of the passengers shared, leading to their demise.
Mule identification and response are only as good as those who know how to spot the red flags. Narrow-mindedness and obliviousness to one’s surroundings make it more difficult to notice such indicators, such as an uneasy posture. Depending on seat assignment and the duration of the flight, airline travel is often uncomfortable, meaning that certain red flags are not always clear cut to identify. Unfortunately, some red flags are incorrectly reported due to heightened levels of paranoia and the current threat climate in certain countries. In 2016, for example, an American Airlines flight was delayed by an arguably overly zealous passenger who believed her seatmate, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor, who was working on a complex maths equation, might be a ‘terrorist’ (Glusac, 2016). Although a misunderstanding, the delay nonetheless inconvenienced passengers. The identification of mules, overall threat assessment and behavioural profiling cannot be based on bias; rather by studious and three-dimensional observation.
There are two types of mules; uninitiated and initiated (often termed naïve and partly naïve). Initiated mules are fully aware of their objective(s) (e.g. smuggling or detonating an explosive), while the uninitiated (naïve) mule will possess no knowledge of the objective(s). Flight# 203 is an excellent example of the initiated mule; Carrera was acting under orders given by the cartel’s drug lord and told his task was to record a conversation using a cassette recorder. However, he inadvertently embarked upon a suicidal mission. Escobar had intended the detonation to kill the then President of Colombia, which, unbeknown to Escobar, was a wasted attempt resulting in the deaths of over a hundred lives (when Carrera pressed the record button detonating the IED), as the President had been advised by local intelligence not to fly that day due to intelligence relating to Escobar’s cartel. Even though red flags would have been difficult to spot, Carrera would have still exhibited signs that he was undertaking something deviant.
One does not have to be an aviation security specialist to spot a mule, but having some knowledge of the current political-economic mood and threat level in the region in which one operates is certainly advantageous. Keeping up with current events and being well-versed about regional VIPs, especially if there is political unrest is also beneficial. Sadly, many individuals who are not employed in the security, law enforcement, or military fields, do not notice their surroundings, especially within the confines of an aircraft.
Spotting a mule cannot wait until boarding is completed, but must start as soon as we have visual contact within the airport environs. Mule identification is not that dissimilar from identifying those who are victims of human trafficking. Many airline passengers may exude nervousness, however, this combined with a tense stature can often be an early red flag. Depending on the current threat climate of the area, a security presence, up to a point, acts as a deterrent. While passengers are moving from a non-sterile area (check-in counter/baggage drop off) to a sterile area (boarding gates), security may well be in the minds of all. However, once initial screening is completed and passengers are sent on their way, security needs to remain vigilant. The boarding gate also provides an excellent opportunity for passengers and crew to exercise their behavioural profiling skills.
The ways in which travellers interact with their personal belongings also needs to be observed. Protection of personal belongings while travelling is common, however, when the passenger(s) becomes overprotective of the item(s), the red flag is elevated. For example, diamond smuggling is big business, especially in most parts of southern Africa. Diamonds have been smuggled across international borders with ease thanks to adapted articles of clothing and personal electronic devices. In the instance of the IED on Flight 203, Carrera was a patsy for recording a conversation in the row in front of him. Yet, despite being unaware of what his carry-on luggage really contained, he would have still exuded signs of territorialism towards the inconspicuous luggage as the recorder was the very reason for his boarding the flight. Luggage and carry-on bags come in all different shapes and sizes and misshaped luggage alone is not an abnormality or cause for concern. Suspicious bulges and odours are.
Airline safety announcements are important messages to which passengers should give undivided attention. But, unfortunately, these announcements are usually shrugged off inadvertently, especially by frequent flyers. A mule, however, is likely to become surprisingly attentive during the announcements and, ironically, this increased interest can give them away. Granted many flyers, both frequent and those who take to the skies more sporadically, do show a genuine interest in safety announcements, however, mules (especially those that are inexperienced in the trade) try to follow all the rules to avoid being identified as a ‘suspicious person’.
Matthew Porcelli, CPP, is a private security manager and consultant with experience in the aviation security industry, which included managing a portfolio of eight international airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, USA. In addition to his work in the private security sector, Matthew sits on many security council boards and committees, most notably with ASIS International. Matthew can be contacted at MPorcelli322@gmail.com