San Juan, Puerto Rico - In a case highlighting the infiltration of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by transnational criminal organizations, twelve current and former TSA officers and airport staff were indicted for allegedly trafficking over 20 tons of cocaine -- worth over $100 million -- into the U.S. over a 28-year time frame.
Last Wednesday, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against the twelve defendants, who are charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.
From 1998 to 2016 the conspirators allegedly smuggled about 40,000 pounds, or twenty tons, of cocaine through Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and into the United States, according to the DOJ.
The DOJ press release detailed how the massive trafficking operation allegedly worked:
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.
“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.”
Defendants Edwin Francisco Castro, Luis Vázquez-Acevedo and Ferdinand López are alleged to have operated as facilitators between drug trafficking organizations and the TSA employees who smuggled the cocaine into the airplanes. Defendant Miguel Ángel Pérez-Rodríguez, an airport security company employee, was a source of supply of cocaine to the drug trafficking organization, according to the superseding indictment.
The DOJ press release notes the strategic nature of the operation:
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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.
“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 for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, in the Monday press release.
The indictment was a result of an internal TSA investigation by the Airport Investigations and Tactical Team (AirTAT), a 2-year-old multi-agency initiative.
If convicted, the defendants face prison terms of between 10-years to life in prison.
Not surprisingly, this is the second such bust of TSA officials in only 2 years for transporting massive amounts of cocaine.
In November 2015, three former TSA agents were indicted on charges of defrauding the government and smuggling cocaine.
According to the indictment, 35-year old Joseph Scott, 32-year-old Michael Castaneda, and 27-year-old Jessica Scott, all former TSA agents at San Francisco International Airport, were involved in an ongoing operation to help transport drugs through airport security.
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