In sweeping raids across the island Thursday, police arrested nearly 1,000 suspects in drug trafficking that has turned this U.S. commonwealth into a world center for smuggling and money laundering.
Entire families were jailed, including more than 150 children and teenagers.
Police also seized more than $80,000 in cash, as well as heroin, cocaine and marijuana with an approximate street value of $120,000, dozens of weapons, ammunition and 60 cars.
It was the biggest strike yet in an ongoing crackdown on trafficking that has tarnished the image of what tourist brochures promote as the “island of enchantment.”
Puerto Rico’s geographical position in the Caribbean between drug-growing areas of Columbia, Bolivia and Peru and the drug-consuming United States makes it a perfect conduit for transporting drugs and laundering the trade’s profits.
“Up to 90 percent of crimes here are drug-related - murders, carjackings, burglaries, prostitution,” said Pedro Toledo, a 26-year veteran of the FBI who was appointed police chief of Puerto Rico two years ago to try and halt the violence.
Within blocks of the tourist-lined Caribbean beaches, the drug trade reaches from housing projects to the legislature, where lawmakers who also are lawyers are being criticized for representing accused drug traffickers.
In the pre-dawn raids Thursday, police struck back.
“Police. Police. Open up!” The shouts around 1 a.m. set roosters crowing and brought neighbors onto the street outside the Alexandrino public housing project in Guaynabo, 20 miles south of San Juan.
As elsewhere, there was no resistance. A search uncovered 20-inchwide squares of heroin, about a gram of cocaine and two .45-caliber pistols hidden between the mattress and box springs of a bed.
A policewoman spotted the mother of the house trying to hide heroin in her panties. A tussle ensued. Through an open door, a boy sitting on his bed with a black-and-white mutt watched with eyes wide.
The officers arrested the mother and father, their two sons aged 11 and 14, and the wife’s sister. The family’s name was withheld to protect the children.