* 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 (Reuters) - 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 territory.
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.
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 said.
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)