SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Federal law enforcement has broken up a $4 million drug-trafficking ring at Puerto Rico's main international airport that relied on bathrooms and garbage chutes to smuggle cocaine to the U.S. mainland, authorities said Tuesday.
Indicted in the case are 26 suspects including airline employees, airport staff and restaurant workers. The majority were arrested before dawn at the Luis Munoz Marin airport in the capital of San Juan that authorities said serves as the biggest drug distribution center in the Caribbean.
"Today we have brought their operations to a grinding halt," said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez.
Among the items seized from the suspects were jewelry, property and a tiger that authorities said the alleged drug leader kept as a pet. Rodriguez said federal agents nicknamed him "Tony the Tiger."
She said the suspects smuggled drugs aboard flights headed to New York, Miami, Philadelphia and Orlando. Among the planes targeted were those operated by American, JetBlue and Southwest airlines.
Authorities said mules would pick up the cocaine in bathroom stalls after going through TSA checkpoints. The drugs also were smuggled aboard DHL planes and by American Airline employees who would place stickers on luggage indicating it had been cleared by TSA when it hadn't been, officials said. American Airline employees also would send the drugs as cargo themselves free of cost, they added.
American Airlines said in a statement that it was cooperating with authorities.
"We take this matter very seriously," the company said. "Our top priority is the safety and security of our customers and employees."
A spokeswoman for DHL did not respond to a request for comment.
Authorities said workers at the Air Margaritaville restaurant inside the airport also smuggled the cocaine via garbage chutes. They said the suspects would retrieve the cocaine from the garbage, place it inside their locker, take it to the dishwashing area and then deliver it to mules inside coffee bags, with up to 9 pounds (4 kilograms) of cocaine stashed per bag.
The arrests come just months after security screeners and airport workers at the same airport were charged with helping smuggle 20 tons (18 metric tons) of cocaine through Puerto Rico during an 18-year operation that ended last year.