Some 500 law officers swarmed into a public housing project Friday to dismantle a trafficking ring allegedly run by Puerto Rico's top drug suspect, a man described as an aspiring Robin Hood and a patron to reggaeton stars.
With assault rifles slung over their shoulders, officers in riot gear raided the complex where reputed ringleader Angel Ayala Vazquez grew up and allegedly built a drug empire that shipped thousands of kilograms of cocaine to the U.S. mainland.
Ayala, better known as "Angelo Millones," was captured last month following a seven-year investigation.
"It was his domain," Pedro Janer, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Puerto Rico, said of the Jose Celso Barbosa project, a collection of concrete, three-story yellow buildings in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon. "He lived there his entire life. People liked him. They protected him."
Arrest teams from the DEA, FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Puerto Rico police assembled at a nearby Army base, Fort Buchanan, before speeding into the complex before dawn.
"We use overwhelming force to guarantee the safety of our agents," DEA spokesman Waldo Santiago said.
Suspects were rounded up without incident and loaded onto a bus for processing at a sports stadium in San Juan. By midafternoon Friday, 38 of 65 defendants indicted by a U.S. grand jury on drug trafficking charges had been arrested at the project and other spots in the metropolitan area.
"I think we've cut this tree down," said Joseph Shepherd, acting special agent in charge of the DEA in this U.S. Caribbean territory.
Despite the project's grim exterior, there was clear evidence of drug riches inside.
At one apartment, FBI agents broke down the door and found leather couches, custom recessed lighting and a lavish entertainment system including a large flat-screen television. Luis Fraticelli, the top FBI official in Puerto Rico, said the traffickers used that unit as a command center.
Ayala, who was targeted by a long-running DEA investigation, is accused of importing cocaine from Colombia, often by way of the Dominican Republic, and distributing the drug to the U.S. mainland and other cities in northern Puerto Rico. Cocaine was allegedly shipped to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Ayala's lawyer has said his client is innocent of charges that could send him to prison for life.
U.S. prosecutors say the ring generated roughly $100 million in profits since the mid-1990s. Authorities have seized cash and property in that amount from the defendants, including a $250,000 Lamborghini.
Ayala was generous with the project's poor residents.
For Christmas he put on lavish parties featuring well-known reggaeton artists, U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said. She said at a news conference that Ayala used drug profits to pay for the parties "as a way to maintain control over the housing projects."
The trafficking ring also used violence and intimidation to control the Barbosa project, according to Rodriguez, who said the gang installed iron bars at some building entrances to facilitate drug sales and block the way for police. Ayala is suspected of ordering the slaying of rival traffickers, including a shooting that killed a 3-year-old girl in May.
The DEA says Ayala used his wealth to provide back the career development of the island's reggaeton acts. Two that performed at his holiday parties, Don Omar and the duo Wisin y Yandel, were among witnesses called to testify before the grand jury.
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