(FOXNEWS) Federal agents raided Puerto Rico’s international airport Wednesday, arresting at least 33 people for allegedly smuggling millions of dollars worth of cocaine and heroine on commercial flights since 1999.
Three other suspects were arrested in the mainland United States: two workers at Miami’s international airport and another at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The suspects were members of two Puerto Rico-based drug trafficking organizations that would work with each other, and one of them was run by a woman, officials said.
“We have dismantled the two most significant drug operations at the airport,” said Pedro Janer, acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s Caribbean division.
The suspects are accused of helping move thousands of pounds of cocaine and several pounds of heroin from Puerto Rico to several U.S. cities including Miami and Newark, New Jersey, from 1999 to 2009, according to the DEA.
At least 45 arrest warrants were issued in the combined operations, 12 of them targeting current or former employees of American Airlines, according to the DEA. Several other warrants were issued for workers at Ground Motive Dependable, a company that provides baggage handling services for the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan.
DEA agents also sought to arrest one employee with Cape Air and a government worker with Puerto Rico’s Port Authority.
Janer said the workers would enter the airport with drugs in their bags, on themselves or in their cars and then hand it over to someone else inside airport bathrooms once they cleared security.
Some of the drugs belonged to Angel Ayala Vázquez, once considered Puerto Rico’s top drug dealer and better known as “Angelo Millones”, according to the DEA. He was captured in 2009 following a seven-year investigation and was later convicted.
A spokesman for American Airlines, Ed Martelle, said by email that the company always assists law enforcement in such case and helps “prosecute the individuals responsible to the fullest extent of the law.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy for any employee when it comes to this type of activity,” he said.
Officials with Ground Motive Dependable said they would soon issue a statement.
The arrests are a continuation of a September 2009 operation that targeted nine American Airlines workers accused of participating in the same drug ring. Federal authorities arrested ground crews with Ground Motive Dependable on similar charges in August 2010.
Puerto Rico is a major drug shipment point in the Caribbean, and the U.S. territory is seeking more federal funding to fight drug trafficking, with officials noting that more than 70 percent of the cocaine that arrives on the island is destined for the mainland.
“Congress has recognized there’s a problem,” said Héctor Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s new police chief, adding that it should be easier to catch drug traffickers because drugs only arrive by air or water. “It’s not that difficult. We don’t have tunnels. They can’t drive it here.”
In the last two years, the DEA and other agencies have reported an increase in the size of cocaine shipments seized around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nearly 8,200 pounds (3,700 kilograms) have been seized as of May this year, compared with 10,800 pounds (4,900 kilograms) seized last year and more than 8,300 pounds (3,800 kilograms) in 2010.
Gov. Luis Fortuño said he is requesting more equipment and personnel for the Coast Guard, the DEA and other federal agencies to help reduce the number of drugs trafficked through the island.
“This is an issue of national security,” he said, “not just of Puerto Rico.”
(FOXNEWS) Puerto Rico’s Electoral Commission opened an investigation on Monday into allegations of vote tampering and voter fraud by both of the island’s main political parties in the island’s recent political primaries.
Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans went to the ballots on March 18 to decide which candidates of the New Progressive Party (NPP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) for mayors, senators and representatives would go on to the November elections.
The process was fraught with discrepancies, with the NPP and PDP flinging fraud and vote count accusations at each other. But the most egregious allegations stem from an internal fight within the NPP in Guaynabo –where the popular mayor of the city, Hector O’Neill, backs the candidacy of the incumbent representative Antonio Soto, while the top leadership of the NPP party backs an opponent, Angel Pérez. The race triggered a battle that forced a recount of the primaries ballots for the first time in Puerto Rico’s political history. Recounts were up to now reserved only for the general elections.
The bitter contest and recount has already dredged-up evidence of electoral practices that sparked the Electoral Commission investigation and may lead to a charges of criminal wrongdoing. It laid bare a practice of “vaciado de listas,” where people were recorded as having voted that never went to the polls or were deceased.
The recount will likely take about three weeks to complete, if not more, according to the President of Puerto Rico’s Electoral Commission, Héctor Conty.
Conty ordered the recount, in light of the mounting accusations from both political parties, and kept the matter out of the courts for the time being. If enough evidence is found of fraud, it could lead to a criminal investigation.
Gov. Luis Fortuño has stated that whoever was involved in the wrongdoings, no matter which party they belong to, will be brought to justice. “If the shoe fits, wear it,” he said.
The scandal has further eroded an already skeptical voting public’s confidence in the island’s political system and both of the major parties have much to lose.
“The political parties themselves [NPP and PDP] have made sure throughout the years that this practice remained hidden,” Antonio Sagardia, ex Minister of Justice under Fortuño, said. “Now they have kicked the anthill and the ants are starting to bite. They can’t go back and put the ants back in.”
“This situation is going into a crescendo. It will not be resolved by a mere chest x-ray. This needs a complete MRI,” Sagardia said. “We have to undergo a deep tissue analysis of the signatures and the ballots.”
He added that in order for the system to change, “we have to take this to the last consequences.”
Voter confidence has taken a nosedive on an island already highly suspect of the political system and players. In a recent poll in El Nuevo Día, the newspaper of record of Puerto Rico, 82 percent of respondents said they thought that the discrepancies and other irregularities were delinquent acts by both parties.
“It is the system itself and the parties themselves that have led to voter apathy and lack of confidence,” Sagardia said.
“What needs to be protected here is the right of the voter, which transcends partisan battles,” he said.
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is a freelance writer based in New York City. She is a former News Director for Univisión Puerto Rico and has worked for ABC News, the Associated Press Television News in London and CNN International. She writes a Blog for www.magacin.com called Susanne en la Ciudad.