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

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.


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