A federal grand jury has charged 26 people — including airline employees, airport staff and restaurant workers — with running a $4 million drug smuggling and money laundering operation from Puerto Rico’s international airport. The alleged leader of the scheme has not yet been arrested and is believed to be holed up in the Dominican Republic with his pet tiger.
Federal authorities arrested employees of American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, DHL, airport cleaning services and workers at a Margaritaville restaurant before dawn at the Luis Munoz Marin airport in the capital of San Juan.
"Today we have brought their operations to a grinding halt," said U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez.
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The alleged leader of the operation, identified as Humberto Concepción Andrades, has not been arrested. The U.S. has filed an extradition request with the government of the Dominican Republic, where Andrades lives with a pet tiger that federal authorities have nicknamed "Tony the tiger," Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Ivan Ortiz said.
The Justice Department has ordered the forfeiture of the tiger as well as luxury cars, properties and high-end jewelry Andrades owns, Rodriguez's office confirmed to NBC.
According to the indictment, the suspects smuggled drugs aboard flights headed to New York, Miami, Philadelphia and Orlando. Among the planes targeted were those operated by American, JetBlue and Southwest airlines.
Authorities said mules would pick up the cocaine in bathroom stalls after going through TSA checkpoints. The drugs also were smuggled aboard DHL planes and by American Airlines employees who would place stickers on luggage indicating it had been cleared by TSA when it hadn't been, officials said. American Airlines employees also would send the drugs as cargo free of charge, they added.
American Airlines said in a statement that it was cooperating with authorities.
"We take this matter very seriously," the company said. "Our top priority is the safety and security of our customers and employees."
A spokeswoman for DHL did not respond to a request for comment.
Authorities said workers at the Air Margaritaville restaurant inside the airport also smuggled the cocaine via garbage chutes. They said the suspects would retrieve the cocaine from the garbage, place it inside their locker, take it to the dishwashing area and then deliver it to mules inside coffee bags, with up to 9 pounds of cocaine stashed per bag.
The arrests come just months after security screeners and airport workers at the same airport were charged with helping smuggle 20 tons of cocaine through Puerto Rico during an 18-year operation that ended last year.