Weapons Possession Inside Puerto Rican Prisons
by Lonnie Burton
On May 8, 2003, a 21-page indictment was handed down by a federal grand jury sitting in San Juan, Puerto Rico charging 18 people mostly prisoners for allegedly trafficking heroin and cocaine throughout Puerto Rico's prison system. The indictment also charges many of the defendants with firearms and weapons violations for smuggling and possessing a cache of high powered weapons inside the prisons. The indictment finally charges other defendants with money laundering and with fraudulent use of a communication system by using cell phones to facilitate the operation.
Although the actual size of the drug smuggling ring is unknown, some media outlets, including USA Today, have reported that the ring smuggled over 16,000 pounds of the two drugs between prisons over a six-year span. The indictment itself, however, does not support this number. According to the charging documents, the drug and weapons ring was run by the NETA prison gang, who primarily operated inside the Ponce Main, Zarzal, and Bayamon Annex 1072 prisons in Puerto Rico. The group conspired with outside contacts in the free community and "purchased, smuggled, and then distributed heroin, cocaine and marijuana into prison institutions within Puerto Rico for monetary gain," the indictment said.
The entire operation was "very well organized," according to officials. One prisoner member of NETA would be in charge of selling the drugs inside the prison, while another would have the contact with the outside source. Each prison was referred to as a chapter, and percentage of the profits would go to the Chapter Supervisor. No drugs were allowed to be sold inside a prison until a Floor Supervisor examined the drugs and collected a percentage for the NETA fund, the indictment alleges.
Once a deal was made for a sale, the prisoner buyer was given a smuggled-in mobile or cellular phone to instruct a friend or family member to send the money to a person designated by the Floor Supervisor. All money is typically sent by a Western Union money gram. Only after the money arrives at its destination and the Floor Supervisor is notified via separate cell phone or pager, are the drugs distributed to the buyer. The money is then placed into an unknown bank account, the indictment says.
The quantity of drugs alleged in the indictment is not large when compared to published reports. One kilogram of heroin, 5 kilograms of cocaine, and a "detectable" amount of marijuana is the total amount of narcotics alleged in the indictment. In contrast, a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Justice describe the amounts as "multi-kilograms of heroin, cocaine and detectable amounts of marijuana."
The amount of weapons found inside the walls of Puerto Rico's prisons, though, is staggering. Among the weapons found in the possession of Puerto Rican prisoners, according to the indictment, are seven rifles, a machine gun, 12 pistols, magazines, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and two bullet-proof vests found at the Bayamon Annex prison, a .25 caliber, a 9mm, and a Berretta pistol, with two large capacity magazines and 25 rounds of ammunition each found at Zarzal prison; and a .38 caliber pistol with an obliterated serial number found at the Centro Detencion del Oeste Mayaguez facility.
In addition to the drugs and weapons, the indictment also charges several of the defendants with intentionally using a communication facility to further their criminal conspiracy. Numerous telephone, mobile phone, cellular phones and pagers were found in the possession of prisoners allegedly involved in the smuggling operation.
The conspiracy was so well organized that despite the joint investigation by the FBI Safe Streets Task Force, Puerto Rican police, San Juan police, Puerto Rico Department of Corrections, and the U.S. Attorney's Office, several unindicted co-conspirators were named in the indictment, the final destination of the drug profits is unknown, and some defendants were identified only by a nickname. No staff members or employees were named in the indictment which would indicate either gross corruption or gross incompetence on the part of prison officials in Puerto Rico.
The indictment seeks forfeiture of all assets directly or indirectly derived from the drug smuggling operation, which the indictment alleges reached $2 million. In the event none of these proceeds are located, the indictment seeks forfeiture of all of the defendants' other property, up to $2 million. Under 21 U.S.C. § 853(p), each defendant who is convicted is jointly and severally liable for the $2 million forfeiture. See: United States v. Rivera-Adorno, USDC D PR, Case No. 03- .
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Related legal case
United States v. Rivera-Adorno