Ten individuals -- including several airport officials -- have been arrested for trafficking 20 metric tons of cocaine from Puerto Rico to the United States since 1998, a reminder of the importance of this oft-overlooked territory as a drug transshipment point.
US and Puerto Rican authorities arrested ten individuals on February 13 in a sting operation against the cocaine trafficking group, reported Hoy Los Ángeles. A previous police operation in November 2016 resulted in the arrest of two other suspects that belonged to the network.
Six of the suspects were employees of the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and in charge of the luggage screening process. Several of the other suspects worked for private security firms or as baggage handlers at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, according to a US superseding indictment (pdf).
The group would contract drug "mules," or low-level human smugglers, to ensure that their luggage would board the plane unchecked. The US indictment indicates that up to five mules would board a plane at a time, registering two pieces of luggage that each contained between eight and fifteen kilos of cocaine.
Authorities estimate that the group moved around 20 metric tons of drugs between 1998 and 2016 for a total worth of $100 million.
The detained individuals have been charged with cocaine trafficking to the United States. The six former TSA employees face additional charges of accepting bribes.
InSight Crime Analysis
The dismantlement of this cocaine trafficking network is the latest evidence of Puerto Rico's role as a transit point for drugs moving to the United States.
Due to a rise in drug seizures in recent years, the US federal government produced its first anti-narcotics plan for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in 2015. However, it is unclear whether the US assistance has had a strong impact on Puerto Rico's drug trade. Authorities seized almost two tons of cocaine in November 2016, the largest onshore seizure of illicit drugs in its history.
The increased drug smuggling through Puerto Rico is due to greater security pressure in the Dominican Republic that has led to a shift in trafficking routes, according to the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
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A significant portion of the cocaine moving through Puerto Rico is sold to domestic users. According to the DEA's 2016 annual report, between 70 and 80 percent of the cocaine that arrives on the island is sent to the United States, while the rest is consumed by the local market.