SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Seven U.S. Postal Service workers have been indicted on charges they sent thousands of pounds of marijuana through the mail to Puerto Rico while shipping cocaine and heroin to the U.S. mainland, federal authorities said Wednesday.
The mail carriers in San Juan are accused of running a smuggling ring that shipped drugs between Puerto Rico, Texas, California and Arizona beginning in 2003.
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is a favored transit point for drugs from South America because once they arrive here, they do not have to clear customs to reach the American market.
U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said the arrests reflect persistence of traffickers on this Caribbean island, where others swept up in recent anti-drug operations include airport ground crew members accused of stowing cocaine-stuffed suitcases aboard U.S.-bound planes.
"I think it's business as usual," Rodriguez said at a news conference. "They use every route that's available."
A grand jury on Tuesday indicted the postal workers along with 13 alleged coconspirators. By midday Wednesday, 18 of the defendants had been arrested, according to Waldo Santiago, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent.
Postal workers on the United States mainland are under investigation for their possible roles in the trafficking ring, federal prosecutor Sean Torriente said.
The alleged ringleader, Olly Nieves Burgos, directed the criminal activity of six other mail carriers assigned to his post office in San Juan, according to the indictment. He allegedly had direct contact with drug owners and, for a fee, ensured their shipments arrived safely.
To avoid raising suspicions, the defendants wore their postal service uniforms when they picked up drugs at predetermined locations, according to the indictment.
Rafael Medina of the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General said it is a sad but isolated case of corruption.
"This is a stain for the postal service's reputation but it does not represent the work of the many trustworthy employees who do their job every day," he said.
The DEA investigation, named Operation Dirty Eagles, began in October 2008 and involved undercover agents who hired the mail carriers to ship parcels purportedly containing cocaine and heroin to the U.S. mainland.
But Santiago said the organization trafficked more heavily in marijuana destined for Puerto Rico. Over the last three years, according to DEA estimates, it smuggled at least 100,000 pounds (45,000 kilograms) of marijuana worth more than $150 million to the island from the U.S. mainland.
In some cases, the defendants allegedly discovered traffickers who were sending drugs from California and Arizona to addresses on their routes and demanded payment in exchange for not stealing the narcotics.
Santiago said the source of the drugs is still under investigation but the postal workers are believed to have aided several trafficking organizations.
The mail carriers also are accused of facilitating the shipment of guns from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico. A separate indictment alleges that some of the mail carriers had another defendant pretend to be a postal worker and deliver the mail so they could receive pay and benefits without doing their jobs.