A group of people including nine American Airlines employees pleaded guilty to a drug-smuggling scheme that spanned a decade and targeted cities across the United States, authorities said Monday.
The suspects allegedly smuggled more than 9,000 kilograms (19,800 pounds) of cocaine aboard commercial flights leaving Puerto Rico from 1999 to 2009, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said the leader of the organization, Wilfredo Rodriguez Rosado, was a part-time employee who recruited workers to help pack suitcases with cocaine and deliver them to Puerto Rico's main airport on pre-loaded airline cargo containers.
A member of the ring would pick the drugs up at airports on the U.S. east coast, including Miami and Orlando, Florida.
The 22 suspects could face up to 15 years in prison. They were arrested in September as part of a joint investigation called "Operation Heavy Cargo."
About 30 percent of drugs that reach the U.S. come through the Caribbean, with Puerto Rico a favored transshipment point because drugs do not have to pass through customs in the U.S. territory.