La Perla drug crackdown nets dozens
Authorities were armed with 114 federal arrest warrants, nearly five dozen for suspects in La Perla, a seaside neighborhood long known for its thriving, open-air drug dealing operation.
Among those arrested was Jorge Gómez González, a respected community leader who authorities allege played the leading role in the drug trafficking operation that has been under investigation since 2009. Also arrested was Santiago Hernández Rosa, the alleged second-in-command, who was president of a local dockworkers union. The indictment accuses him of helping smuggle cocaine, heroin and other drugs into Puerto Rico.
Police Superintendent José Figueroa Sancha said La Perla also served as a base for the cutting and packaging of cocaine and heroin for distribution around the island. The suspects also allegedly peddled cocaine, heroin, marijuana and the prescription drugs Xanax and Percocet at three well-traveled drug sales points in La Perla.
The defendants and their co-conspirators would purchase wholesale quantities of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, Xanax and Percocet in order to distribute the same in street quantity amounts at their drug distribution points, authorities said.
The leaders would routinely give out “samples” of new batches of heroin or cocaine to users in order to test the “quality” of the drug and promote the sale of the product, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez said the La Perla organization was the biggest heroin trafficking ring in Puerto Rico.
“The largest amount of heroin distributed in Puerto Rico comes from La Perla, or we should say came from La Perla, and this organization that we dismantled today,” she said.
Authorities said the organization generated at least $5 million in illicit proceeds annually, an estimate they called conservative. They allegedly moved 10 kilograms of heroin per week and between two and three kilograms of cocaine every two or three days.
“This violent organization was supplying and selling heroin, cocaine, marijuana, Percocet and Xanax, not only to the people in La Perla, but to people living in different municipalities, minors and tourists. Today we have put an end to their criminal activities,” said Rodríguez. “These traffickers will not be allowed to walk our streets and live among our neighborhoods, and we will not tolerate the seepage of drug-related violence in our communities. We are committed to disrupting their operations and will concentrate our efforts to stop them from committing their day-to-day criminal activities.”
Other arrest warrants were issued for “people who operate in La Perla but live in luxury homes outside the neighborhood,” he said.
Suspects were being taken to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Hato Rey to be processed. Upon his arrival, Gómez denied any involvement.
“I have nothing to do with drugs,” he said. “I just help the community.”
His daughter said her father works two jobs, including an unspecified position at the cargo docks in San Juan.
Rodríguez said local officials were not tipped off in advance to the alleged involvement of Gómez, who met with Gov. Luis Fortuño during a visit by the governor to La Perla several months ago to announce public works in the community.
The nine-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury Tuesday includes various forfeiture allegations. The narcotics forfeiture allegation includes a sum of $20 million and 50 properties located in La Perla. The forfeiture allegations for the money laundering conspiracies include six properties in Toa Baja. The firearms forfeiture allegation includes seventeen firearms: 12 handguns, four rifles, one shotgun and ammunition.
If convicted, the defendants face a minimum of ten (10) years imprisonment and a maximum of life imprisonment, with fines of up to $8 million. Criminal indictments are only charges and not evidence of guilt.A defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty.
The bust also included raids at Exotic Realty in Levittown area of Toa Baja and the Nuevo Grillón liquor store in Santurce, which has been targeted in previous drug trafficking crackdowns.
The indictments stem from an investigation dating back to 2009 lead by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with the collaboration of Immigration & Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations (ICE), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Bureau (ATF) and the Puerto Rico Police Department. The bust involved a deployment of some 400 federal agents, members of the Police Department personnel from the from the local Justice Department’s Special Investigations Bureau and San Juan municipal police.
The “drug owners” would often receive proceeds from the sale of specific controlled substances. These controlled substances were sold in distinctive baggies, vials or packaging, using stickers or brands in order to identify, and maintain control of the drugs disseminated at the drug distribution points. They would use their homes or rent “chalets” in La Perla to process kilogram quantities of narcotics for street level sales, authorities said.
“The members of the drug trafficking organization would use force, violence and intimidation in order to gain and maintain control of their drug points and in order to intimidate rival drug trafficking organizations and/or expand their drug trafficking activities,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Raids in La Perla are not uncommon, but the scope of Wednesday’s crackdown was noteworthy. In recent years, the working-class neighborhood has emerged as weekend party hangout for suburban youth.
Figueroa Sancha said a large police contingent would remain posted at checkpoints in the neighborhood for now.
“We’re going to return La Perla to the decent people who live there,” he said.