Federal and local agents conducted raids Wednesday to arrest dozens of alleged drug traffickers and airline employees suspected of smuggling cocaine from Puerto Rico to the continental United States aboard commercial aircraft.
Forty-five people were indicted May 31 in connection with the smuggling network, according to two federal indictments unsealed Wednesday.
One network transported luggage full of cocaine to Miami and Orlando in Florida and to Newark, New Jersey, officials said.
The criminal organization carried kilograms of cocaine in backpacks, on their person or in official work vehicles into the Puerto Rico airport through security, according to authorities. Once inside the airport, they would meet couriers inside a restroom, and the couriers would then transport the drugs to the continental United States, officials said.
Because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, passengers from there don’t have to go through customs upon arriving on the mainland.
That — and its strategic geographic location between South America and the United States — have made Puerto Rico a central drug transit hub, said Laila Rico, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Puerto Rico’s government has blamed drug-related violence for pushing the commonwealth’s murder rate to more than five times the national average. Local officials have described the island’s borders as an “under-protected front in the nation’s war on drugs.”
“We have been asking the federal government to help us patrol that fourth entry point, the Puerto Rican coasts, which we are unable to cover entirely by ourselves,” Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno said Wednesday. “We want them to help us protect it in the same way they protect the borders with Mexico and Canada.”
A team of 200 federal agents and Puerto Rican police conducted raids Wednesday at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, just outside San Juan, and elsewhere.
“Today’s arrests at one of the nation’s busiest airports reflect our relentless commitment to working with our partners to aggressively fight drug trafficking, not only at our nation’s points of entry, but at source, transit, and arrival zones throughout the world,” DEA Deputy Administrator Thomas M. Harrigan said in a statement Wednesday.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 36 people had been arrested. As many as 10 were apprehended at the airport, and the rest at their homes. The action was dubbed Operation Open Door.
The first indictment charges 25 suspects with 16 counts each of racketeering and drug trafficking, the Justice Department said.
Several of those indicted worked for Ground Mobile Dependable, which provides services such as baggage and cargo handling, Rico said.
The second unsealed indictment charges 20 people with “aiding and abetting each other” to distribute more than 9,000 kilograms of cocaine aboard American Airlines commercial flights, the department said.
In this case, Wilfredo Rodriguez Rosada is accused of recruiting a group of people, including American Airlines employees, who transported and loaded suitcases filled with cocaine to the cargo area and then ensured they reached airports in Miami, Orlando and Newark, officials said.
Twelve current and former American Airlines employees were indicted in what was known as Operation Heavy Cargo 2, Rico said.
“In cases such as this, American Airlines always assists local, state and federal law enforcement agencies,” said Ed Martelle, spokesman for American Airlines. “Our support also extends to helping prosecute the individuals responsible to the fullest extent of the law. We have a zero tolerance policy for any employee when it comes to this type of activity. The actions of a few employees should not reflect negatively on the tens of thousands of ethical American Airlines employees who work hard to serve our customers each and every day.”
Two years ago, authorities arrested three former employees of a private baggage handling company who had worked at an airport in Puerto Rico. Those arrests targeted a drug trafficking ring that used major airlines to smuggle cocaine and heroin to the United States.
Fortuno told CNN en Español that not all Wednesday’s arrests occurred in Puerto Rico. He said some arrests were being made in the mainland United States.
Drug crimes have been a persistent problem on the island in recent years.
In 2010, an FBI investigation into whether police provided protection for drug dealers led to the arrest of 89 law enforcement officers in Puerto Rico.
A record 1,136 people were slain in Puerto Rico in 2011, the commonwealth’s government said in February, calling for more federal funding and resources to begin a “Caribbean Border Initiative” to crack down on drug trafficking and violence.
“The drug-related violence taking place at unprecedented levels in Puerto Rico is directly related to the island’s position at the center of America’s under-protected Caribbean border in the nation’s drug war,” the statement said.
Last month, the head of the Caribbean region for the Drug Enforcement Administration told the EFE news agency that increased security at the Mexico-U.S. border had contributed to making Puerto Rico one of the principal entry points for drug trafficking in the United States.
Authorities did not specify where the drugs connected with Wednesday’s operation came from before they entered Puerto Rico, saying they were still investigating.