The FBI has dismantled a major drug trafficking group in Puerto Rico that allegedly moved at least nine tons of cocaine into the United States over a period of five years, highlighting the appeal of the US dependency's location as a drug transshipment point.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested 27 suspected members of the group -- 18 in Puerto Rico and others in US states including Texas, Florida and California. The network is believed to have made over $100 million between 2005 and 2010. Convicted drug trafficker Jose Figueroa Agosto, known as the "Pablo Escobar of the Caribbean," previously led the group, reported the Associated Press.
"They are one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, organizations in Puerto Rico and probably the Caribbean in the last 20 years," said FBI special agent Carlos Cases.
The group allegedly sent at least $8 million in cash back to the Dominican Republic on a private yacht, and used the drug money to buy vehicles and businesses. Edgar Collazo Rivera -- an influential Puerto Rican businessman and the owner of the yacht -- stands charged with money laundering.
InSight Crime Analysis
According to US officials, Puerto Rico is an increasingly common transit point for US-bound drugs, which are often sent to small Caribbean islands before arriving in the territory. Drugs also reach Puerto Rico via go-fast boat from the Dominican Republic, which has also become an important transshipment hub for cocaine trafficked from South America by both sea and air.
The Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic drug connection is well-established. Two major Puerto Rican drug traffickers arrested in 2011 allegedly smuggled cocaine to Puerto Rico via the Dominican Republic. Figueroa, the convicted former leader of the current group, has been accused of operating under the protection of corrupt Dominican Republic officials.
While the case highlights Puerto Rico's importance as a drug transshipment point, it also raises the question of why the island is not even more popular with traffickers, and why drugs first pass through the Dominican Republic, as the island's status as a US territory and its geographical proximity to both South America and to the US mainland make it an ideal jump-off point.