45 Indicted in Puerto Rico Trafficking Probe

By: From CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp
By: From CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp

PUERTO RICO (CNN) -- Federal and local agents conducted raids early Wednesday to arrest an array of alleged drug traffickers and airline employees who officials say formed a network that smuggled cocaine from Puerto Rico to the continental United States aboard commercial aircraft.

Forty-five people were indicted on May 31st in connection with the smuggling network, according to two federal indictments unsealed Wednesday. One of the networks transported luggage full of cocaine to Miami and Orlando in Florida, and to Newark, New Jersey.

A team of 200 federal agents and Puerto Rican police conducted the raids at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, just outside of San Juan, and elsewhere.

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 individuals with 16 counts each of racketeering and drug trafficking, the Justice Department said.

According to authorities, the criminal organization carried kilograms of cocaine in backpacks, on their person or in official work vehicles into the Puerto Rico airport through security. Once inside the airport, they would meet couriers inside a restroom, and the couriers would then transport the drugs to the continental United States.

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.

The leader of the organization was Maribel Rodriguez Fragoso, alias "La Flaca," the Justice Department said.

Several of those indicted worked for Ground Mobile Dependable, which provides services such as baggage and cargo handling, Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Laila Rico said.

"Americans have a right to expect the highest integrity from those they entrust with their safety, and DEA is committed to protecting that trust," DEA Deputy Administrator Thomas M. Harrigan said in a statement.

"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."

The second unsealed indictment charges 20 people for "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.

A total of 12 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."

Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno told CNN en Español that not all of the arrests were in Puerto Rico. He said some arrests were being made in the mainland United States.

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.

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