SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – U.S. federal agents swept through Puerto Rico's largest airportand other areas early Wednesday, arresting dozens of baggagehandlers, airline workers and others suspected of smugglingmillions of dollars' worth of cocaine aboard commercial flights forat least a decade. Tourists gawked when agents with the U.S. Drug EnforcementAdministration arrested one suspect as he arrived to work at theLuis Munoz Marin airport in San Juan. At least 33 people werearrested in Puerto Rico, along with two workers at Miami'sinternational airport and another at the Dallas-Ft. |
Worth airport,the DEA said. Those arrested are suspected of belonging to two Puerto Rico-baseddrug trafficking organizations that worked with each other,including one that was run by a woman, officials said. "We have dismantled the two most significant drug operations at theairport," said Pedro Janer, acting special agent in charge of theDEA's Caribbean division. The suspects are accused of helping move some 14 tons (13 metrictons) of cocaine and several pounds (kilograms) of heroin fromPuerto Rico to several U.S.
cities including Miami, New York,Boston and Newark, New Jersey, according to the DEA. One groupoperated from 1999 to 2009, and the other from 2010 to 2012, theDEA said. The 45 suspects include 18 who worked for American Airlines and 19who worked for Ground Motive Dependable, a local company thatprovides ramp and baggage services, said U.S. Attorney Rosa EmiliaRodriguez. "They put the security of all passengers at risk," she said.
DEA agents also sought to arrest one employee with Cape Air and agovernment worker with Puerto Rico's Port Authority. Janer said gang members would enter the airport with drugs in theirbags, on themselves or in their cars, then hand the drugs over tosomeone else inside airport bathrooms once they cleared security. Some of the drugs allegedly belonged to Angel Ayala Vazquez,formerly considered Puerto Rico's top drug dealer and nicknamed"Angelo Millones," the DEA said. He was arrested in 2009 and laterconvicted. A spokesman for American Airlines, Ed Martelle, said by email thatthe company always assists law enforcement in such cases and helps"prosecute the individuals responsible to the fullest extent of thelaw.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy for any employee when it comes tothis type of activity," he said. Officials with Ground Motive Dependable said they would soon issuea statement. The arrests are a continuation of a September 2009 operation thattargeted nine American Airlines workers accused of participating inthe same drug ring. Federal authorities arrested ground crews withGround Motive Dependable on similar charges in August 2010.
Bernardo Vazquez, director of Puerto Rico's Port Authority, said hedid not know whether the airport took additional security measuresafter the 2009 operation because he was not director at the time.He said he would meet with federal authorities to see how toimprove security. He also said all airport workers are screenedbefore they are hired. "We give them an ID because we understand that they are suitable towork at an airport," he said. "We had no idea." Puerto Rico is a major drug shipment point in the Caribbean, andthe U.S. territory is seeking more federal funding to fight drugtrafficking, with officials noting that more than 70 percent of thecocaine that arrives on the island is destined for the mainland.
"Congress has recognized there's a problem," said Hector Pesquera,Puerto Rico's new police chief, adding that it should be easier tocatch drug traffickers because drugs only arrive by air or water."It's not that difficult. We don't have tunnels. They can't driveit here." In the last two years, the DEA and other agencies have reported anincrease in the size of cocaine shipments seized around Puerto Ricoand the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nearly 8,200 pounds (3,700 kilograms)have been seized as of May this year, compared with 10,800 pounds(4,900 kilograms) seized last year and more than 8,300 pounds(3,800 kilograms) in 2010.
Gov. Luis Fortuno said he is requesting more equipment andpersonnel for the Coast Guard, the DEA and other federal agenciesto help reduce the number of drugs trafficked through the island. "This is an issue of national security," he said, "not just ofPuerto Rico.".
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