US

26 charged with trafficking cocaine at Puerto Rico airport

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, San Juan.

"Today we have brought their operations to a grinding halt," said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez.

She said the drugs were smuggled 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.

Spokespeople for American Airlines and DHL did not immediately respond to requests 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.