Authorities dismantled a major drug trafficking ring at Puerto Rico's main international airport, highlighting the importance of the island as a drug transshipment point.
A US federal grand jury indicted 26 suspected members of a cocaine trafficking ring operating from Puerto Rico's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, authorities announced on April 11.
The indictment alleges that the defendants -- which include airline employees, airport staff and restaurant workers -- smuggled multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine through the international airport aboard planes headed to New York, Miami, Philadelphia and Orlando.
The network allegedly employed several methods to smuggle drugs, including garbage chutes, cargo planes, airport bathrooms and restaurants.
A police operation led to the seizure of properties, jewelry and a pet tiger that allegedly belonged to Humberto Concepción-Andrades, whom authorities suspect to be the leader of the group. At the time of writing, Concepción-Andrades was yet to be arrested.
If found guilty, the defendants face a minimum sentence of 10 years to life in prison.
Photograph appearing to show Concepción-Andrades and his tiger
InSight Crime Analysis
According to the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment report by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the large amount of air traffic from Puerto Rico to the continental United States provides opportunities for drug trafficking. This is in part because cargo and people traveling to the mainland from the island -- an unincorporated US territory -- may be subjected to less rigorous screening than goods and persons arriving from foriegn countries.
SEE ALSO: Caribbean News and Profiles
Cocaine seizures on the island have increased during the past few years. Almost two tons of cocaine were confiscated by authorities in November 2016 -- the largest onshore seizure of drugs in Puerto Rico's history. And another major drug trafficking ring operating from the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport was dismantled in February 2017.
The recent bust also emphasizes the importance of airports for drug smugglers. Ensuring the complicity of airport police and migration authorities makes it easier for smugglers to utilize passengers hiding drugs in their possessions or on their person, sometimes known as "mules." In this latest incident, however, traffickers also allegedly managed to involve other airport staff members, highlighting the advantage of co-opting insiders who know the airport and are able to move around resticted areas with relative ease.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Puerto Rico
Decades ago, when Colombian cartels dominated global drug trade routes, the Caribbean served as the principal transit area for drugs smuggled into the United States from South America. Over time, though, this dynamic has changed. The 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) by the US State Department notes that the majority of cocaine that enters the United States now moves through Central America and Mexico. But as US President Donald Trump's administration has vowed to step up the fight against organized crime in the region and build a wall between the United States and Mexico, it is possible that some drug trade traffic may shift back to the Caribbean.