Thirty-six people were arrested on Wednesday in a crackdown on a drug trafficking ring that used Puerto Rico's main airport to smuggle large quantities of cocaine off the island aboard US-bound passenger flights, authorities said.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration said the 36 detainees, including 22 suspects rounded up at San Juan Airport, were among 45 people indicted for smuggling more than 61,000 pounds (28,000 kg) of cocaine out of the US territory on commercial flights to the US mainland since 1999.
"It's an important blow," said Laila Rico, a spokeswoman for the DEA's Caribbean Division, which is headquartered in Puerto Rico.
"The Puerto Rico airport is sought-after by drug dealers because it's basically a mid-point between South American countries and the United States and offers an easy entry point," Rico said.
The San Juan airport is the point from which the bulk of the drugs were flown to Miami and Orlando, in Florida, and Newark, New Jersey, aboard flights operated by American Airlines.
The DEA said in a statement that some suspects caught up in the drug bust were current or former American Airlines employees and airport personnel, who used a designated bathroom to hand over cocaine to couriers preparing to board US-bound flights.
Cargo handlers on the payroll of the drug ring also worked to ensure that drug-laden suitcases were placed aboard US-bound flights, the DEA said.
"The defendants in this investigation not only utilised their positions and security access to smuggle large quantities of illegal narcotics, but they also compromised the safety and security at one of the Caribbean's most vital airports," Pedro Janer, the special agent who runs the DEA's operations across the Caribbean, said in a statement.
Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth of about 4 million people, has long been known as a leading shipment point for the smuggling of illicit drugs out of South America and into the United States.
Three of the suspects arrested on Wednesday were detained in the United States, according to Rico. She said two were caught at Miami Airport and one at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.