SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Department of Justice – On February 8, 2017, a federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico returned a superseding indictment against twelve defendants charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, announced Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico.
During the course of the conspiracy, the defendants smuggled suitcases, each containing at least 8 to 15 kilograms of cocaine, through the TSA security system at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (LMMIA). Sometimes as many as five mules were used on each flight, with each mule checking-in up to two suitcases. From 1998 through 2016, the defendants helped smuggle approximately 20 tons of cocaine through LMMIA.
Six current and former TSA employees, José Cruz-López, Luis Vázquez-Acevedo, Keila Carrasquillo, Carlos Rafael Adorno-Hiraldo, Antonio Vargas-Saavedra, and Daniel Cruz-Echevarría allegedly smuggled multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine while employed as TSA Officers at the San Juan airport. Their full time responsibilities were to provide security and baggage screening for checked and carry-on luggage that was to be placed on outbound flights from the LMMIA. During the duration of the conspiracy, these TSA employees smuggled multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine through the TSA X-Ray machines within LMMIA and onto airplanes without detection.
According to the superseding indictment, defendants Edwin Francisco Castro, Luis Vázquez-Acevedo and Ferdinand López became facilitators between the drug trafficking organizations and the TSA employees who smuggled the cocaine into the airplanes. Defendant Miguel Ángel Pérez-Rodríguez, who worked for the airport security company, was a source of supply of cocaine to the drug trafficking organization.
Defendant Javier Ortiz began assisting drug trafficking organizations as an employee of Airport Aviation Services (AAS) as a baggage handler/ramp employee. During the time of the conspiracy Ortiz used to pick up suitcases he knew contained cocaine from the mules at the airline check-in counter. Ortiz would then place the suitcases into the X-Ray machines being monitored by the TSA drug trafficking organization members, who cleared the suitcases. After the suitcases had been cleared by TSA members, Ortiz took the suitcases to their designated flight, making sure no narcotic K-9 unit or law enforcement personnel were present when the suitcase went from the checkpoint to the airplane. Once the suitcases were loaded into the airplane, defendant Ortiz would make a phone call to a drug trafficking organization member indicating the all clear and the mules would then board the airplane. Ortiz also paid the TSA employees for clearing the suitcases through TSA security.
Defendant Tomas Dominguez-Rohena assisted the drug trafficking organization by taking the suitcases he knew contained cocaine after they had been cleared by TSA members or smuggled passed security to their designated flight. Defendant José Gabriel López-Mercado was a mule for the criminal organization.
“These individuals were involved in a conspiracy to traffic massive quantities of illegal narcotics to the continental United States,” said Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico. “These arrests demonstrate the success of the AirTAT initiative, which has successfully allocated a dedicated group of state and federal law enforcement officers, whose mission is to ensure that our airports are not used in the drug traffickers’ illicit businesses.”
“This investigation was initiated by TSA as part of its efforts to address employee misconduct and specific insider threat vulnerabilities. TSA has zero tolerance for employees engaged in criminal activity to facilitate contraband smuggling,” said José Baquero, Federal Security Director, PR and USVI.
The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are in charge of the investigation with the collaboration of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Marshals and the Police of Puerto Rico.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart J. Zander is in charge of the prosecution of the case, under the supervision of Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Díaz-Rex, Deputy Chief of the International Narcotics Unit. If convicted the defendants face a minimum sentence of 10 years up to life in prison. Indictments contain only charges and are not evidence of guilt. Defendants are presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty.
This case is part of the ongoing efforts of the Airport Investigations and Tactical Team (AirTAT). Originating in January 2015, AirTAT is a multi-agency initiative created to identify, locate, disrupt, dismantle, and prosecute Domestic and Transnational Criminal Organizations (DTCOs) and its operatives using the LMMIA, the Fernando Luis Rivas Dominicci Airport (the Isla Grande airport), and peripheral airports as platforms to smuggle narcotics, weapons, human cargo, counterfeit documents, illicit proceeds, and others. These airports play a strategic role for DTCOs to conduct contraband smuggling activities inbound and outbound to the continental US as well as internationally.