FBI agents arrested scores of Puerto Rican police officers Wednesday for allegedly aiding drug dealers in what authorities said was the national agency's largest-ever police corruption investigation.
About 1,000 federal agents, most of them flown into the U.S. territory especially for the pre-dawn raids, swept up about 130 people, including nearly 90 law enforcement officers accused of providing security to drug dealers on an island where the police force already has been tarnished by allegations of brutality, corruption and incompetence - including two indictments for murder over the last two week - in the face of spiraling crime and rampant drug smuggling.
"We will not allow the corrupt actions of a few to destroy the good work of so many," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a news conference in Washington. "The people of Puerto Rico deserve better."
The suspects include 60 members of the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD), 16 from municipal police departments and 12 officers from the Puerto Rico Corrections Department, as well as National Guard and Army soldiers, administrative officials and civilians.
The suspects were charged in federal indictments unsealed Wednesday and returned last month by a grand jury in San Juan.
Agents began raids across Puerto Rico before dawn Wednesday. The Justice Department said 129 individuals are in custody and four subjects remain at-large, although it was not clear how many of the suspects were picked up Wednesday and how many were already in custody.
The indictments that allege law enforcement officers provided security for drug deals in exchange for payments ranging from $500 to $4,500, Holder said.
FBI agents conducted 125 undercover drug transactions between July 2008 and September 2010 that formed the basis of the indictment, Holder said.
Among the charges included in the 26 indictments are conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, attempt to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking offense.
A total of 77 police officers from state and municipal precincts across the island were indicted, including a member of the governor's motor pool, according to Luis Fraticelli, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Puerto Rico. He said another officer admitted to an undercover officer that he killed a man.
The arrests brought shock and dismay to the island as the governor and other local officials scrambled to denounce the alleged corruption. Officers have been charged with crimes in the past, including providing security to drug traffickers, but nothing on this scale.
Wilson Maldonado, a retired police officer tending to some personal business at police headquarters in San Juan, said he was sickened by the arrests, which he attributed in part to a lack of supervision.
"This is a sad and deplorable moment for the department," Maldonado said.
The civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department is pursuing its own investigation into an alleged pattern of abuses including use of excessive force, unconstitutional searches and discriminatory policing. That investigation could lead to the federal government taking a role in reforming Puerto Rico's police.
Calls for reform have mounted in recent days with several high-profile abuse allegations.
One police officer was charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday for allegedly chasing a man down with his pickup truck while off duty and shooting him in the back. Another was charged with second-degree murder a week earlier in a shooting that left a robbery witness brain-dead.
At the news conference, Fraticelli said police need to dramatically improve their recruiting and implement periodic lie-detector tests to restore public confidence in the police.
Police chief Jose Figueroa Sancha, who helped launch the federal investigation as a deputy director of the San Juan FBI office in July 2008, said he has taken steps to improve oversight. He praised 63 honest officers who participated in the probe as heroes.