By Mike Melia
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — With a stucco mansion in the hills outside San Juan and four luxury cars, including a Corvette, Wilfredo Rodriguez lived well for a part-time worker on an airport ground crew.
U.S. prosecutors say Rodriguez, who wrapped cargo in plastic for American Airlines, built his fortune over the last decade by smuggling drugs aboard commercial flights - one small slice of the hundreds of tons of South American cocaine that flow through Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland each year.
His arrest last week highlights the challenges for law enforcement authorities on this U.S. Caribbean territory, as traffickers flood the island with drug money and make it one of the most violent places under the American flag.
"It's hard to keep up," U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said in an interview. "These people make a lot of money and they reinvest their profits in their business and they have the most sophisticated equipment, the most sophisticated methods."
While most of the drugs reaching the United States arrive through the southwest border, an estimated 30 percent come through the Caribbean - and of all the islands, authorities say, Puerto Rico is easily the biggest transshipment point. As American soil, it is attractive because drugs leaving here do not have to clear customs to reach the U.S. market.
At least 1,430 metric tons of cocaine reached the island last year, according to the Key West, Florida-based Joint Interagency Task Force South, which coordinates the tracking of drug shipments in the region. The drugs, which have come at similar levels for years, are often spirited ashore Puerto Rico's 300-mile (480-kilometer) coastline in boats from neighboring islands.
U.S. authorities say Colombian organizations oversee most of the smuggling into and through the island with help from Dominican and Puerto Rican traffickers.
The middlemen's profits sustain a thriving underground economy.
Wilfredo Rodriguez, who allegedly contracted his smuggling services to multiple cocaine traffickers, lived in the biggest home by far in his quiet neighborhood in Morovis, a town southwest of San Juan. U.S. authorities have seized the two-story, beige home as well as a nearby apartment complex that belonged to Rodriguez. Neighbors said Rodriguez, who told them he owned a roofing company, was constantly expanding the house on a street named Happiness Way.
Now he is in federal custody on charges that he recruited other American Airlines employees to an operation that smuggled more than 9,000 kilograms (19,840 pounds) of cocaine to cities on the U.S. east coast. His lawyer says he is innocent of charges that could send him to prison for life.
While many of the suspected drug kingpins and money launderers live in peaceful, gated communities, the people who suffer most from Puerto Rico's drug war live in the island's housing projects - many of them vast concrete complexes, gated off from surrounding communities, that traffickers control as personal fortresses.
From inside the projects, traffickers distribute cocaine and heroin that stay on the island, often as payment from Colombian crime syndicates in exchange for sending the rest on to the U.S. mainland. About a third of the drugs that reach Puerto Rico remain on the island, officials say.
Rodriguez, the top prosecutor, said there is at least one distribution point - or "punto" - in each of the island's 240 housing projects.
In the largest housing project in Puerto Rico, two blocks south of a popular San Juan beach, community leader Ana Guzman says she hears gunshots on a near daily basis. The Llorens Torres project is one of many where authorities say traffickers use violence to control their turf. But Guzman hesitates to blame the young gang leaders. It's the only life they know.
"Most of them got into this because somebody killed their father," she said.
Puerto Rico's police chief Jose Figueroa Sancha said the traffickers increasingly are using minors to distribute drugs inside the housing projects because when caught, they face less harsh sentences.
"We're seeing a generation whose only life is being at the drug point," he said.
Violence is also increasing. There have been 619 killings so far this year, an increase of 8 percent from last year when Puerto Rico had its bloodiest year in a decade. The island of 4 million people has long had a high murder rate compared with the U.S. mainland, and most homicides are blamed on the drug trade.
For U.S. authorities, the surge in violence is a sign they are having at least some success.
"If we arrest somebody here I know there's going to be somebody who's going to want to come and control this point," Rodriguez said. "That's the reason for all the violence. They're fighting for drug turf."
Over the last three years, special strike forces involving federal agencies and police have arrested more than 1,000 drug suspects, sweeping up dozens at a time inside housing projects. The U.S. also increased seizures of cocaine at sea near Puerto Rico by nearly 80 percent to 14,640 kilograms (32,275 pounds) last year, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.
A big obstacle is finding witnesses to come forward. In many cases people fear retribution. But on an island where the lyrics of reggaeton artists bred in housing projects have glamorized an underworld of drugs and violence, authorities say others stay silent out of misguided loyalty.
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"We believe the community has to start doing their share of supporting law enforcement and being more optimistic about the prospects of our law enforcement efforts," Rodriguez said. "They need to report the crimes, come and testify, and everybody needs to chip in because it's an island-wide crime."