About 1,000 federal agents, some flown in, swept into Puerto Rico for pre-dawn raids that rocked the island. Civilians and 89 law enforcement officials – including prison guards, members of the U.S. Army and National Guard and a member of the governor’s motor pool – are accused of protecting drug dealers in exchange for payments.
The police force was already reeling from allegations of brutality, corruption and incompetence in the face of spiraling crime and rampant drug smuggling.
"We will not allow the corrupt actions of a few to destroy the good work of so many," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a news conference in Washington. "The people of Puerto Rico deserve better."
The indictments allege law enforcement officers provided security for drug deals in exchange for payments ranging from $500 to $4,500, Holder said. FBI agents conducted 125 undercover drug transactions between July 2008 and September 2010 that formed the basis of the indictment, Holder said.
Among the charges included in the 26 indictments are conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, attempt to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking offense.
A total of 77 police officers from state and municipal precincts across the island were indicted, according to Luis Fraticelli, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Puerto Rico. He said another officer admitted to an undercover officer that he killed a man.
The arrests brought shock and dismay to the island as the governor and other local officials scrambled to denounce the alleged corruption. Officers have been charged with crimes in the past, including providing security to drug traffickers, but nothing on this scale.
Wilson Maldonado, a retired police officer tending to some personal business at police headquarters in San Juan, said he was sickened by the arrests, which he attributed in part to a lack of supervision.
"This is a sad and deplorable moment for the department," Maldonado said.
The civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department is pursuing its own investigation into an alleged pattern of abuses including use of excessive force, unconstitutional searches and discriminatory policing. That investigation could lead to the federal government taking a role in reforming Puerto Rico's police.
One police officer was charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday for allegedly chasing a man down with his pickup truck while off duty and shooting him in the back. Another was charged with second-degree murder a week earlier in a shooting that left a robbery witness brain-dead.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.