Flight attendant or drug smuggler? Feds charge another air crew member in illicit schemes

A flight attendant and two bank employees in Indiana have been charged in a federal indictment that accuses a Mexico-based drug trafficking ring of transporting large amounts of cocaine into the U.S. and laundering tens of millions of dollars in proceeds, prosecutors announced Tuesday.

Glenis Zapata, 34, of Lafayette, Indiana, is charged with aiding traffickers with the transportation of drug proceeds on commercial airline flights, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of Illinois, which cited an unsealed indictment. Zapata, the news release adds, possessed a "Known Crew Member" badge and used her authority to help the traffickers move cash drug proceeds from the Midwest to the southern part of the U.S. and into Mexico.

Two bank employees – Ilenis Zapata, 33, and Georgina Banuelos, 39, both of Lafayette – are accused of laundering the drug proceeds by exchanging lower-denominated bills for higher-denominated ones, according to the indictment. Both Ilenis Zapata and Banuelos "knowingly and willfully failed to file currency reports for the transactions," as required under federal law, the indictment states.

The announcement Tuesday is at least the second drug trafficking case involving airline workers this month. Federal prosecutors in New York announced charges against four flight attendants on May 8 for smuggling $8 million in drug money using their enhanced security clearance.

Indictment: Group used trucks, planes to transport money

The charges announced Tuesday come after 15 other members were previously charged, including the operation's alleged leader, Oswaldo Espinosa, according to the federal indictment.

From 2018 to 2023, the group is accused of transporting tens of millions of dollars in drug proceeds from the Midwest to the South and into Mexico using semitrucks, commercial flights, and a private chartered jet that was previously seized by the government in a 2021 drug bust, prosecutors said.

The indictment details eight seizures of cocaine across the Midwest, starting with about 11 pounds first taken in Chicago in March 2021. Law enforcement officials also seized millions of dollars in proceeds from cocaine sales across Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Maryland, and Florida, according to the indictment.

The case was investigated by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, an independent agency of the Department of Justice, and the largest anti-crime task force in the nation.

Illegal drugs in the U.S.

About 47,000 Americans are arrested every year for the sale and manufacture of heroin, cocaine, and derivative products, according to the National Center For Drug Abuse Statistics, and nearly 228,000 people are arrested for possession. But the center noted arrests for both offenses have dropped in recent years.

Drug overdose deaths have been on the uptick since 1999, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The agency found nearly 108,000 people died in 2022 from illicit or prescription drugs.

Deaths from cocaine – an addictive stimulant drug made from coca plant leaves – have also increased, the institute said, with about 27,500 deaths reported in 2022.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Flight attendant aided drug traffickers and laundered money: Feds