* Nine American Airlines employees among those arrested
* Accused of sending cocaine-filled cases to United States
* Indictment names 23 accused, 21 in custody
* Almost all arrests in Puerto Rico, one in Miami
(Recasts, adds details of indictment, quotes from officials)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 15 U.S. agents
arrested 21 people, nine of them American Airlines AMR.N
employees, accused of smuggling suitcases loaded with cocaine
on flights from Puerto Rico to the United States, authorities
said on Tuesday.
The accused, 20 of whom were detained in Puerto Rico and
one in Miami, were charged with a conspiracy to distribute more
than 9,000 kg (19,800 pounds) of cocaine aboard American
Airlines commercial flights, according to an indictment
released by the U.S. Attorney for the U.S. Caribbean
The operation involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA), the Puerto Rico Police Department and the
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Of the 23 suspects named in the indictment, 21 were
detained by mid-morning on Tuesday, DEA officials said. The two
remaining suspects were being sought in San Juan.
"With these arrests the DEA closes another route for
thousands of kilograms of cocaine to reach the United States or
any other part of the world from Puerto Rico," DEA Special
Agent in Charge Javier Pena said in a statement.
The indictment alleged the ringleader of the trafficking
ring, American Airlines employee Wilfredo Rodriguez-Rosado, had
since 1999 recruited and organized a group of fellow airline
employees to smuggle suitcases loaded with cocaine onto
American Airlines aircraft bound for different cities in the
continental United States.
"THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY"
Prosecutors said members of the group worked together to
fill suitcases with cocaine and, taking advantage of their
position as American Airlines employees, smuggle them from the
airline's cargo area at San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin
International Airport aboard flights to the United States.
Minnette Velez, spokeswoman for American Airlines in San
Juan, which is the airline's transport hub for the Caribbean,
confirmed that company employees had been arrested.
"Whenever the authorities bring a situation like this to
our attention, we work with them. That was the case here," she
American Airlines issued a statement saying: "As a company,
we hope that the actions of a few employees don't reflect
negatively on the tens of thousands of ethical American
Airlines employees who work hard to serve the public daily."
If convicted, the defendants face a minimum of 10 years
imprisonment and a maximum of life imprisonment, with fines of
up to $4 million.
Prosecutors said they would seek the forfeiture of $18
million worth of property belonging to the defendants,
including a number of residences and businesses.
The U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico, Rosa Emilia
Rodriguez-Velez, said U.S. authorities would intensify their
efforts to prevent Puerto Rico being used as a transshipment
point for drugs to the U.S. mainland.
"The use of commercial aircraft to smuggle narcotics in and
out of Puerto Rico, also creates a serious threat to our
national security," Rodriguez-Velez added.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton; Writing by Pascal
Fletcher; Editing by Jim Loney, Bernard Orr)