US authorities arrested over 30 people allegedly belonging to two drug smuggling rings operating out of a Puerto Rico airport, underscoring the country's importance as a transhipment point for US-bound narcotics.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents working with Puerto Rican police arrested 33 people on drug trafficking charges in the US territory on June 6. Many of the detained worked as baggage handlers at Luis Muñoz Marin airport in San Juan, and for American Airlines, reported the Associated Press. Two people were arrested at Miami International Airport and one at Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport.
After the arrests two US federal indictments were unsealed, naming 45 people alleged to be part of two drug trafficking groups based in Puerto Rico.
Together, the groups -- one alleged to have operated from 1999-2009, the other from 2010-2012 -- are accused of shipping 13 tons of cocaine along with smaller quantities of heroin on flights from Puerto Rico to major cities on the US East Coast, including New York, Miami and Boston.
The DEA's head for the Caribbean, Pedro Janer, stated that many of the trafficking operations involved airline workers exploiting their security clearance to smuggle the narcotics into the airport before handing them over to others in airport bathrooms to take on to flights.
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Janer told press last month that Puerto Rico was becoming an increasingly crucial transit point for cocaine on its way to the US. He said that the authorities' increased focus on Central American trafficking routes was the main reason for this.
The official said that most of the cocaine that arrives in Puerto Rico comes on drug flights from Colombia and Venezuela. Some 70 percent then goes on to the US, the AP reported. According to a US Justice Department report released last year, the flights often drop large cocaine packages off the coast of the Dominican Republic. From there, it is picked up by Dominican gangs before being moved to Puerto Rico on small private boats and yachts.
Another factor in the territory's importance to the drug trade is the large number of Puerto Rican communities in cities on the East Coast, which has enabled smugglers from the island to set up networks in the US, according to Janer.
Cocaine seizures in Puerto Rico rose 30 percent between 2009 and 2010. Nearly 4 tons were seized between January and May this year, an almost identical figure to the same period in 2010.
A rise in violence has accompanied the uptick in drug trafficking. Last year saw 1,136 homicides registered, the highest on record for the territory.