SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Hundreds of FBI agents flew into Puerto Rico to round up dozens of police officers accused of aiding drug traffickers — one of the darkest days yet for a force tarnished by recent allegations of brutality, discrimination and incompetence.
In pre-dawn raids Wednesday, about 1,000 federal agents swept up about 130 people, including nearly 90 law enforcement officers accused of providing security to drug dealers on a U.S. territory where police are struggling to curb spiraling crime and rampant drug smuggling.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said it was the largest police corruption investigation in the FBI's history.
"We will not allow the corrupt actions of a few to destroy the good work of so many," Holder said at a news conference in Washington. "The people of Puerto Rico deserve better."
The suspects include a dozen prison guards, two soldiers in the U.S. Army, three National Guard soldiers and civilians.
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, he 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, including a member of the governor's motor pool, said Luis Fraticelli, special agent in charge of FBI operations in Puerto Rico. He said another officer admitted to an undercover officer that he had killed a man.
"Honor was sold for drug money," U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the defendants did not appear to collaborate as part of a single conspiracy. Rather, she said, several groups of corrupt officers came to work for traffickers separately.
Holder said the arrests were certain to disrupt the flow of drugs through Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that traffickers use as a stepping stone for South American cocaine and heroin destined for the U.S. market.
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.
Carlos Cotto, a police officer who works alongside federal agents as part of a special task force, said the department needs to provide more training and rarely punishes officers for incidents that should lead to dismissals.
"Here, they forgive agents for a lot of things," he said. "It's about who you know."
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.
Calls for reform have mounted in recent days with several high-profile abuse allegations.
One police officer was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder 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.
At the news conference, Fraticelli, the island's chief FBI agent, said police need to dramatically improve recruitment and implement periodic lie-detector tests to restore public confidence.
Police Chief Jose Figueroa Sancha, who helped launch the federal investigation as a deputy director of the San Juan FBI office in July 2008, said he has taken steps to improve oversight. He praised 63 honest officers who participated in the probe as heroes.
Associated Press Writer Danica Coto contributed to this report.