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 9,000 kilograms (19,840 pounds) of cocaine over the past decade to destinations that include Miami and Orlando, Florida, and New Jersey, said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez.
Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI arrested 22 members of the alleged smuggling ring, including most of the suspects who work at the airport, during raids early Tuesday. The arrests followed a joint investigation dubbed "Operation Heavy Cargo."
The alleged ringleader, Wilfredo Rodriguez Rosado, is an American Airlines employee who has agreed to surrender to authorities but was not yet in custody, the U.S. attorney said. The others were arrested in cities across the U.S. Caribbean territory and Miami.
American spokeswoman Minnette Velez confirmed the arrest of airline employees but gave no details.
"We work with the authorities whenever we identify a situation like this, which is unacceptable," Velez told The Associated Press. "We work to make sure this doesn't happen."
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is a favored transshipment 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 American market.
Rodriguez defended security at the airport, but said it could be better.
"It has better security than many airports in the United States and I'm sure that now it will be even better," she said.