Skift Take

The ease with which the ring operated for a number of years in multiple U.S. airports raise both security concerns and relief that cocaine smuggling pays better than terrorism.

Source: Orlando Sentinel
By Henry Pierson Curtis and Arelis Hernandez

Dozens of baggage handlers accused of smuggling tons of cocaine from Puerto Rico through airports in Orlando, Miami and other East Coast cities were busted at San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin Airport on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Ferrying cocaine and smaller amounts of heroin, one of the two drug-trafficking rings investigated by authorities began shipping drugs in the late 1990s on American Airlines flights to Orlando, Miami, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J.

The second ring uncovered by law enforcement was headed by a Maribel “Skinny Lady” Rodriguez-Fragoso, who ran an organization of 25 members that paid airport workers in San Juan to carry cocaine through employee entrances to waiting couriers and others who loaded drug-filled suitcases on aircraft, records state.

Together, the rings shipped about 28,000 pounds of cocaine to the mainland, DEA Chief Thomas Harrigan said during a Wednesday news conference in San Juan.

So much cocaine was being smuggled that the rings did not slow despite losing as much as 200 pounds seized on some flights, according to the indictments released in San Juan on Wednesday. More than 45 suspects are named in two indictments, including 30 living on the island.

In October, Orlando drug agents seized about 13 pounds of cocaine from a traveler who arrived at Orlando International Airport on an Air Tran flight from San Juan. Accused courier Gil Garcia-Soto, who remains held in the Orange County Jail on a drug-trafficking charge in lieu of $1 million bail, told authorities he had been paid $1,900 to fly to Orlando and call a phone number when he arrived with the suitcase of drugs, court records show.

Garcia-Soto was not named in the indictment, but the indictment identifies four members of the smuggling ring accused of setting up a 6-kilogram (13-pound) shipment from San Juan to Florida on the same date that Garcia-Soto was arrested with the same amount of cocaine.

Arrests began early Wednesday in Puerto Rico, and some suspects remain at large. No arrests were made Wednesday in Orlando, authorities said. OIA spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Members of the Puerto Rico Police Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office, DEA and FBI said the drug-trafficking organizations involved employees based in Puerto Rico from American Airlines, Ground Motive Dependable — a cargo-handling and airline-services company — Cape Air, the Port Authority and an airport gas station.

“The defendants in this investigation not only utilized their positions and security access to smuggle large quantities of illegal narcotics, but they also compromised the safety and security at one of the Caribbean’s most vital airports,” acting Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Caribbean Division Pedro Janer told reporters after the roundup began.

According to the DEA, the first ring had shipped about 9,000 kilograms of cocaine to the mainland since 1999. It also shipped 30 kilograms of heroin from 2009 through 2011. Ring members are also accused of smuggling large amounts of cash back to Puerto Rico from the drug sales.

Puerto Rico Police Department Superintendent Hector Pesquera said he is proud his officers helped initiate the 36-month investigation but is ashamed that the operation persisted so long in his homeland’s airport.

The threat to national security posed by drug smugglers was also cited in case documents by Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez, U.S. attorney for the district of Puerto Rico.

“The use of commercial aircraft to smuggle narcotics in and out of Puerto Rico, also creates a serious threat to our national security,” she wrote.

During the news conference, Rodriguez-Velez said if found guilty, the defendants face anywhere from 10 years to life in federal prison and millions in fines.

In 2009, DEA agents arrested 23 people — eight of them American Airlines employees — in connection with a similar drug-smuggling operation out of the same airport in San Juan and in Miami. One of those defendants previously worked at OIA in Orlando, records show.

The investigation is ongoing, authorities said.

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Tags: security

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