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Orlando Sentinel

Video Catches Cops In The Act

by Iván Román

August 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Police Officer Juan Villafane Jimenez, dressed in khaki prison garb, bowed his head and cried as a videotape replayed the troubling scene.

Relatives in the packed courtroom watched, too, as the tape showed Villafane and two others in police uniforms and bulletproof vests loading book bags with 30 kilograms of fake cocaine from a boat into a Jeep Cherokee. Villafane, authorities testified, used his patrol car to escort the shipment and ensure that no police or rival drug dealers would get in the way.

On the tape, his partners, Manuel Pena Martinez and Eddie Rodriguez Nichols, climbed into the Cherokee with an undercover agent, kneading the fake cocaine and bragging about drug deliveries they had made before.

"Let's scrape some off," Pena said.

As the tape played Thursday afternoon, Villafane's father told a federal marshal, "Take me out of here, because I can't take this anymore."

Another woman put her face in her hands. "I can't watch this. I can't watch this anymore."

The special screening was just the beginning of a courtroom drama that is Operation Lost Honor, the FBI's biggest police-corruption case to date in the United States and its territories.

Twenty-nine police officers, many of them consoling one another throughout the afternoon, are accused of using their police powers to protect cocaine shipments on the island.

No mercy shown

Despite pleas from tearful relatives, U.S. Magistrate Aida Delgado showed no mercy. She denied bail to nine of the officers who pleaded not guilty.

Detention hearings for the remaining 20 officers and three others caught in the 14-month sting operation will continue through the week.

"The nature of the actions shock this community -- that they took an oath to protect, and they broke that oath," Delgado said as relatives hugged one another. "They engaged in actions that they were supposed to prevent. I feel sorry for the family members in court, but that's what the law calls for right now."

The police officers, a civilian police employee, a corrections officer and a former cop were charged Tuesday with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and carrying a firearm while committing a drug offense. They all face sentences from 10 years to life in prison.

With the help of an informant turned undercover agent, all were accused of using their positions as police officers to protect cocaine shipments from police detection and "rival" drug gangs.

The sting was carried out from June 14, 2000 to May 25, 2001.

According to the five indictments, some of the officers recruited others in the protection scheme, widening the net.

Payments for protection ranged from $3,000 to $28,000 per shipment -- for a total of about $200,000.

Helpful advice

Portions of surveillance tapes taken in cars, apartments, marinas and parking lots showed officers giving the undercover agent, posing as a drug trafficker, advice on how to avoid attracting police.

On a tape, one officer said he needed guns to "take down" a rival drug dealer with whom one of the other police officers was working.

'The Crazy Cows'

FBI agents testifying at the hearings said some of the officers confided that they belonged to "The Crazy Cows," a notorious group of thieves suspected to be police officers that robbed homes and drug points.

Some of those charged, ranging in age from 21 to 43, had associate degrees or college studies in criminal justice, and most joined the police force in the 1990s. A few had been with the National Guard for more than 10 years.

It all began last year during a drug transaction when local police arrested a man who turned out to be a police officer. The suspect then began helping local and federal authorities set up the sting.

One of the officers, Victor Pacheco, belonged to the joint local and federal task force to stop drug trafficking. When taken off the assignment once his activities became known, he accused the local police officer-turned-informant of ratting him out and said he had "a bullet with his name on it," authorities said.

Gov. Sila Calderon, who ran on a platform of zero tolerance for corruption, said there would be no mercy for the officers who were part of this "shameful thing for our people."

"These officers have violated all public trust that the people put in them," Calderon said. "They did it in an area that affects the safety of our children, of all our lives, because it's about drugs. This is just unforgivable."

More embarrassments

Operation Lost Honor is the latest embarrassment to hit the 19,000-strong Puerto Rico Police Department, where a combination of low pay, poor working conditions and lax recruitment are blamed, in part, for enticing police to succumb to the growing drug trade.

Young officers, like many charged in the sting, make about $17,000 a year, and more than a dozen typically die in the line of duty every year. Despite efforts to improve investigative techniques and modernize the department, a lack of money usually puts officers at a disadvantage from drug dealers and thieves they try to fight.

The department's image, periodically shaken over the years, has hit a particularly bad streak lately.

A case is pending against six police officers who broke into the birthday party of a 1-year-old child earlier this year wielding nightsticks and beating dozens of people.

The cause of the melee is in dispute, with police claiming they were responding to a call and were provoked. Others, however, say police simply showed up looking for trouble.

Much of the attack was caught on videotape, enraging the public and leading to calls to stem police brutality.

In 1998, five police officers in Vieques were charged with protecting drug traffickers and cocaine shipments. All accepted pleas before the cases could go to court.

Most officers honest

Disappointed police leaders cautioned against a rush to judgment, reminding the public that most officers are honest and hardworking.

"This has been a hard blow for us because we don't support any kind of corruption," said Jose de Jesus Serrano, president of the United Front of Organized Police. "The people shouldn't lose trust in us. These are isolated cases, and you can't generalize because of a few bad apples."

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