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Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Nine employees of American Airlines have been charged with participating in a smuggling ring that shipped cocaine from Puerto Rico's main airport aboard flights to the U.S. mainland, officials said Tuesday.

The American Airlines workers, a mix of baggage handlers and other members of the ground crew, were part of a ring suspected of sending at least 19,840 pounds of cocaine over the past decade to destinations that include Miami, Orlando and New Jersey, said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez.

Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI arrested 22 purported members of the alleged smuggling ring, including most of the agencies' suspects who work at the airport, during raids early Tuesday. The arrests followed a joint investigation dubbed "Operation Heavy Cargo."

Investigators accuse Wilfredo Rodriguez Rosado, 37, of being the ringleader. He surrendered at a federal courthouse Tuesday afternoon, according to his attorney, Luis Rivera. Rodriguez no longer works for the airline and is pleading innocent, Rivera said.

As a part-time American Airlines cargo employee, Rodriguez is accused of recruiting others to help pack suitcases with cocaine and deliver them to the airport on loaded airline cargo containers. A member of the drug ring would then pick up the suitcases at mainland airports, according to the indictment.

The defendants, who were arrested in cities near San Juan and in Miami, face charges including conspiracy and aiding and abetting one another with intent to distribute cocaine. Authorities say they smuggled out cocaine worth more than $19 million. If convicted, they face fines and up to life in prison.

As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is a favored trans-shipment point for South American cocaine and heroin because once the drugs reach the Caribbean island, they do not have to pass through customs on the way to the U.S. market.

The alleged drug ring operated on a freelance basis and contracted services to several drug traffickers, according to Javier Pena, the special agent in charge of the DEA in Puerto Rico.

"They lent themselves out to other organizations," Pena said. "They were available to anyone."