U.S. federal agents swept through Puerto Rico's largest airport and other areas early Wednesday, arresting dozens of baggage handlers, airline workers and others suspected of smuggling millions of dollars' worth of cocaine aboard commercial flights for at least a decade.
Tourists gawked when agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested one suspect as he arrived to work at the Luis Munoz Marin airport in San Juan. At least 33 people were arrested in Puerto Rico, along with two workers at Miami's international airport and another at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, the DEA said.
Those arrested are suspected of belonging to two Puerto Rico-based drug 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 the airport," said Pedro Janer, acting special agent in charge of the DEA's Caribbean division.
The suspects are accused of helping move some 14 tons (13 metric tons) of cocaine and several pounds (kilograms) of heroin from Puerto Rico to several U.S. cities including Miami, New York, Boston and Newark, New Jersey, according to the DEA. One group operated from 1999 to 2009 and the other from 2010 to 2012, the DEA said.
The 45 suspects include 18 who worked for American Airlines and 19 who worked for Ground Motive Dependable, a local company that provides ramp and baggage services, U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said.
"They put the security of all passengers at risk," she said.
DEA agents also sought to arrest one employee with Cape Air and a government worker with Puerto Rico's Port Authority. One of the suspects arrested, Eugene Romero Santiago, also was the driver of Puerto Rico Sen. Lornna Soto, who represents the district where the airport is located and is a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
Janer said gang members would enter the airport with drugs in their bags, on themselves or in their cars, then hand the drugs over to someone 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 later convicted.
A spokesman for American Airlines, Ed Martelle, said by email that the company always assists law enforcement in such cases and helps "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," he said.
Vivian Sanchez, a spokeswoman with Ground Motive Dependable, said in an email that the company always has cooperated with federal authorities and noted that all employees undergo a yearly screening as part of a federal requirement. She also said prospective hires face a pre-qualification process that can take up to three weeks.
"Security is an issue of vital importance for GMD," she said.
The arrests are a continuation of a September 2009 operation that targeted nine American Airlines workers accused of participating in the same drug ring. Federal authorities arrested ground crews with Ground Motive Dependable on similar charges in August 2010.
Bernardo Vazquez, director of Puerto Rico's Port Authority, said he did not know whether the airport took additional security measures after the 2009 operation because he was not director at the time. He said he would meet with federal authorities to see how to improve security. He also said all airport workers are screened before they are hired.
"We give them an ID because we understand that they are suitable to work at an airport," he said. "We had no idea."
Puerto Rico is a major drug shipment point in the Caribbean, and the U.S. territory is seeking more federal funding to fight drug trafficking, with officials noting that more than 70 percent of the cocaine 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 to catch drug traffickers because drugs only arrive by air or water. "It's not that difficult. We don't have tunnels. They can't drive it here."
In the last two years, the DEA and other agencies have reported an increase in the size of cocaine shipments seized around Puerto Rico and 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 and personnel for the Coast Guard, the DEA and other federal agencies to help reduce the number of drugs trafficked through the island.
"This is an issue of national security," he said, "not just of Puerto Rico."