The face of a system failure

The passport photo didn’t look like him, and yet the Brockton murder suspect was waved through, fleeing the country

Authorities say Luis Guaman, in this police photo, used a stolen passport to board a flight to Ecuador last month. Authorities say Luis Guaman, in this police photo, used a stolen passport to board a flight to Ecuador last month. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Shelley Murphy and Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / March 5, 2011

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The age listed in the passport was 26. The man who presented the document to security officers at John F. Kennedy International Airport was 40. His face bore only a passing resemblance to the photograph.

Yet, Luis Guaman cleared security without incident last month and boarded a plane for his native Ecuador using an Ecuadoran passport in the name of Segundo Castro.

His escape from the United States not only became a headache for investigators who have charged him with murdering a woman and her son in Brockton, but it starkly highlights a weakness in American airport security.

That weakness was supposed to have been addressed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when a commission assessing the nation’s vulnerabilities recommended comprehensive screening at airports and border crossings in order to “dramatically strengthen the world’s ability to intercept individuals who could pose catastrophic threats.’’

But while the Department of Homeland Security has created layers of security to keep weapons and terrorists off planes, aviation security specialists say it is still far too easy for someone with a stolen passport or faked identification to get through security while departing from US airports.

“The problem is this . . . there is nothing in place right now, that I’m aware of, where that [Transportation Security Administration] agent can do anything with that passport other than look at it,’’ said Douglas R. Laird, president of Laird & Associates, an aviation security consulting firm in Reno. “They can’t scan it through a reader and tell if it’s good or not. That’s a weakness.’’

It doesn’t mean that airplanes are more vulnerable to attack, aviation security specialists cautioned, because all passengers are searched and questioned and their bags are scanned.

Laird said the priority for airport security is not catching fleeing felons, but rather “to keep the airplane from falling out of the sky.’’

Still, the specialists said, passports and other IDs are a security issue that could be exploited by terrorists and other criminals trying to hide their identities. Currently, TSA agents have few tools for reviewing the documents, and must check hundreds of passports by hand with the aid only of magnifying glasses and blacklights. Ultimately, they rely on their eyes — and training in basic facial recognition — to compare travelers’ faces with passport photographs that can be years old.

“If you don’t have a system where you can scan the passport, that tells you through technology if it’s good or bad, you’ve got a problem,’’ said Laird, a former Secret Service agent and security director for Northwest Airlines. “You don’t really know who it is.’’

Al Felzenberg, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University and former spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, said it is difficult to assess the risk posed by those using fraudulent documents. But he believes that using such biometric identifiers as fingerprints to verify the identity of people leaving the country would minimize the chances that terrorists could use faked documents to board planes.

“We should have a sense of knowing who’s leaving, who’s coming, and how often,’’ Felzenberg said. “There are more sophisticated ways to do this, and if it’s a priority for the government, it should be done.’’

The 9/11 Commission recommended the use of biometrics, like digital fingerprints, photographs, and retinal scans, to screen people entering and exiting the country, to verify travelers’ identities and keep track of how long they stayed.

The names and birthdates of all passengers flying in and out of the country are collected by airlines and checked against the FBI’s watch list and no-fly list, which includes the names and aliases of suspected terrorists.

Also, under the US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system, which has been gradually phased in since 2004, the Department of Homeland Security collects digital fingerprints and photographs from most non-US citizens when they apply for a visa or arrive at the nation’s airports and other entry points. Each time they enter the country, those prints are run through a massive law enforcement database to weed out suspected terrorists, alleged criminals, or illegal immigrants.

Congress had mandated that the agency implement a biometric screening system by the end of last year for foreign visitors exiting the country. But after running pilot programs at a dozen airports and two seaports in recent years, homeland security officials have yet to implement a biometric sytem that tracks visitors when they leave. They have said they are still reviewing it.

Passengers boarding planes at the nation’s airports are required only to show their boarding pass and passport, driver’s license, or other government-issued identification to a TSA screener, who checks whether the photo matches the person and uses a blacklight and magnifying glass to verify whether the document appears authentic or has been tampered with.

“TSA’s top priority is the safety of the traveling public,’’ said agency spokesman Greg Soule. “Every day TSA screens nearly 2 million passengers and utilizes many layers of security to keep our nation’s transportation systems secure. Every passenger passes through multiple layers of security, to include thorough screening at the checkpoint.’’

As for how Guaman was able to slip past security with a passport that was issued to a man 14 years his junior who bore little resemblance to him, Soule said an investigation into the matter is ongoing.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they had no record of Guaman and believe he had entered the country illegally.

Guaman boarded an Aerolineas Galapagos flight hours after police had discovered the bludgeoned bodies of his housemates, Maria Avelina Palaguachi-Cela and her son Brian, 2, in a trash bin behind their Brockton house Feb. 13. Investigators were seeking him for questioning when they discovered he was in Ecuador. Guaman was indicted in the murder case Wednesday, and state and federal authorities are trying to persuade Ecuador, which forbids extradition of its citizens, to return him to the United States to stand trial. He is being held in Ecuador on a fake passport charge.

Last year, TSA screeners caught 200 people with fraudulent documents trying to board flights at US airports, Soule said. It is unknown how many went unnoticed.

Richard W. Bloom, an aviation security and counterterrorism expert who teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, said it was a little worrisome that Guaman was able to pass through security with the passport of a 26-year-old. But he said there may never be a way of making the system foolproof.

“Regardless of how good a security program is, there is going to be a base rate of things happening,’’ he said.

US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said that keeping suspected terrorists from entering the country has been a top priority since 9/11, but it may be difficult to come up with a system that will catch passengers with fraudulent documents from leaving the country that is cost-effective and not too burdensome for all travelers.

“I think eventually you are going to need something more thorough,’’ Lynch said. “We can always do better, that’s for sure, as this case demonstrates.’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at; Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.