SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – U.S. federal agents say they raided Puerto Rico's main international airport and other areas early Wednesday, arresting at least 33 people suspected of smuggling millions of dollars' worth of drugs aboard commercial flights.
Three other suspects were arrested in the U.S.: two workers at Miami's international airport and another at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The suspects were members of two Puerto Rico-based drug trafficking organizations that would work with each other, and one of them 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 thousands of pounds (kilograms) of cocaine and several pounds (kilograms) of heroin from Puerto Rico to several U.S. cities including Miami and Newark, New Jersey, from 1999 to 2009, according to the DEA.
At least 45 arrest warrants were issued in the combined operations, 12 of them targeting current or former employees of American Airlines, according to the DEA. Several other warrants were issued for workers at Ground Motive Dependable, a company that provides baggage handling services for the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan.
DEA agents also sought to arrest one employee with Cape Air and a government worker with Puerto Rico's Port Authority.
Janer said the workers would enter the airport with drugs in their bags, on themselves or in their cars and then hand it over to someone else inside airport bathrooms once they cleared security.
Some of the drugs belonged to Angel Ayala Vazquez, once considered Puerto Rico's top drug dealer and better known as "Angelo Millones", according to the DEA. He was captured in 2009 following a seven-year investigation and was later convicted.
A spokesman for American Airlines, Ed Martelle, said by email that the company always assists law enforcement in such case 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.
Officials with Ground Motive Dependable said they would soon issue a statement.
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.
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."