US drug enforcement agency officials have arrested dozens of suspected smugglers, including baggage handlers and airline workers, from Puerto Rico's main airport in the capital San Juan.
Officials from Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) swept through Puerto Rico's largest airport and other areas early on Wednesday, arresting at least 33 people suspected of smuggling millions of dollars' worth of drugs aboard commercial flights for at least a decade.
Apart from the arrests in the Caribbean archipelago, two workers at Miami's international airport and another at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport were also arrested, according to DEA.
Those arrested are suspected of belonging to two Puerto Rico-based drug trafficking organisations that worked with each other, including one that was run by a woman, officials said.
"We have dismantled the two most significant drug operations at the airport," Pedro Janer, acting special agent in charge of the DEA's Caribbean division, said.
The suspects are accused of helping move some 14 tonnes of cocaine and several kilograms of heroin from Puerto Rico to several US cities including Miami, New York, Boston and Newark, New Jersey, according to the DEA.
One group operated from 1999 to 2009 and the other from 2010 to 2012, the DEA said.
Passengers at risk
The suspects include 18 who worked for American Airlines and 19 who worked for Ground Motive Dependable, a local company that provides ramp and baggage services, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, US attorney, said.
"They put the security of all passengers at risk."
DEA agents also sought to arrest one employee with Cape Air and a government worker with Puerto Rico's Port Authority.
Some of the drugs allegedly belonged to Angel Ayala Vazquez, formerly considered Puerto Rico's top drug dealer and nicknamed Angelo Millones, the DEA said.
Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American Airlines, said by email that the company has always assisted law enforcement in such cases and helped "prosecute the individuals responsible to the fullest extent of the law.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy for any employee when it comes to this type of activity."
Vivian Sanchez, a spokeswoman with Ground Motive Dependable, said in an email that the company always has co-operated with federal authorities and noted that all employees undergo a yearly screening as part of a federal requirement.
The arrests are a continuation of a September 2009 operation that targeted nine American Airlines workers accused of participating in the same drug ring.
Drug shipment point
Puerto Rico is a major drug-shipment point in the Caribbean, and the US territory is seeking more federal funding to fight drug trafficking, with officials noting that more than 70 per cent of the cocaine that arrives on the island is destined for the mainland.
"Congress has recognised there's a problem," said Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico's new police chief, adding that it should be easier to catch drug traffickers because drugs only arrive by air or water.
In the last two years, the DEA and other agencies have reported an increase in the size of cocaine shipments seized around Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
Nearly 3,700kg have been seized as of May this year, compared with 4,900km seized last year and more than 3,800km in 2010.
Governor Luis Fortuno said he is requesting more equipment and personnel for the Coast Guard, the DEA and other federal agencies to help reduce the number of drugs trafficked through the island.
"This is an issue of national security,'' he said, “not just of Puerto Rico",