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Did Judges Aid Drug Dealers?
By Iván Román
January 18, 2002
Facing charges. (Photo: TONY ZAYAS/EL NUEVO DIA)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The island's police-corruption scandal widened dramatically Thursday with 23 more officers indicted on charges of protecting drug dealers and traffickers, and news that the web of bribes may have spilled over into the court system.
So far, more than 60 police officers have been charged in drug-related investigations since August.
The officers caught in Operation Blue Shame in the southern city of Ponce are charged with protecting drug buys, returning seized cocaine and heroin to dealers, lying to prosecutors to thwart cases, selling stolen guns and drugs, and helping to hide dealers during drug stings.
But acting Assistant U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil said what worried him even more were the lies, delay tactics and administrative maneuvering that apparently put some prosecutors and judges in collusion with the street thugs.
Gil said he had no jurisdiction to charge the judges and prosecutors. But he did write letters to local justice and court officials asking them to investigate three judges, a marshal and two prosecutors for acts that surfaced during the police probe.
In a news conference Thursday, he said he had informed the Puerto Rico Supreme Court about an incriminating tape of one judge "in which he admits he has accepted payments from lawyers and bail bondsmen, and he asks for more right then and there."
Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez said she will immediately investigate the two prosecutors who are under suspicion.
The federal police probe began in August 2000, five months before Rodríguez came on board. But authorities have been monitoring the suspected prosecutors and judges to make sure no significant damage was done to any important cases.
The latest bombshell involving the police comes during a week in which citizen anger over public corruption scandals hit a fever pitch.
As a former House speaker charged with extortion and money laundering walked out of the Capitol for good Monday, Puerto Ricans learned about another investigation into kickback allegations against a mayor and a former education secretary.
The fallout from former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo's alleged extortion schemes, now being investigated by a federal grand jury, not only touches more people in the previous administration of Gov. Pedro Rossello but also is tainting the New Progressive Party itself.
"This situation here is very serious," political analyst Marco Antonio Rigau told irate listeners on the radio Thursday. "The information about more corruption just keeps on coming so much, I don't know where to start."
Thursday's arrests added to the growing number of police officers charged with protecting drug shipments or helping cocaine distribution in some manner.
Twenty-nine officers were put behind bars in Operation Lost Honor on Aug. 14. In terms of the numbers of officers involved, it was the largest police anti-corruption sting in FBI history.
Those officers were caught on tape, sometimes in uniform and in their patrol cars, protecting drug shipments from intervention by rival drug gangs or other police.
One police technician was seen and heard advising an informant, who was posing as a drug dealer, about the best way to dispose of a body and avoid detection.
Not as many officers are involved in Operation Blue Shame. But Gil considers the case much more serious because, he said, drug dealers paid officers to lie to prosecutors, give false testimony and to release people they should have arrested.
They also were paid to skip trials, therefore forcing cases to expire, he said.
In exchange for cash, investigators said, officers also returned drugs that had been seized in raids, lied to help suspects get released from jail and let suspects hide during a drug sting.
Some also stole guns from third parties and sold them while others stole drugs from a drug-trafficking organization and sold it back to the dealers. Individual payments ranged from $500 to $12,000.
Although not charged in this case, prosecutors and judges are suspected of delaying trials, misplacing motions, giving "preferential treatment" to cases handled by certain criminal lawyers and other actions, short of overtly throwing cases, to make it more difficult to secure convictions.
Associate Supreme Court Judge Francisco Rebollo Lopez announced late Thursday afternoon that he had temporarily relieved two of the judges pending an investigation.
Federal agents arrested all but one of the 23 police officers and suspect the missing officer may be somewhere in New Jersey. The leader of one of the drug-trafficking rings also is at large.
Operation Blue Shame is the latest embarrassment to hit the 19,000-member 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.
More than 40 percent of the cocaine entering the United States comes through Puerto Rico. A quarter of it stays on the island, feeding increasingly competitive and violent drug-distribution networks.
The department's new police superintendent, Miguel Pereira, called Thursday's arrests part of the effort to purge and reform the huge agency.
Just this week, he revamped the mostly dormant internal-affairs division and brought in top-ranking civilians on staff to direct the investigation of complaints. For the first time in the department's history, he also is establishing a Civilian Review Board.
"Although this sting brings us shame, it also brings a sense of being reborn," Pereira said. "Governor Sila Calderon's message is clear -- that there is no tolerance and there will be no tolerance for anyone who has committed these corrupt acts."
Pereira immediately suspended the indicted officers. For Pereira, the arrests drove home the need for better screening of police candidates.
The news this week turned up the temperature:
*Rodríguez recommended that a special prosecutor investigate a $750,000 payment that former education secretary Fajardo is accused of demanding from a supplier in October 2000 to be used in the New Progressive Party's failed election campaign. The check, investigators say, was deposited into a shell company run by his sister-in-law and his daughter.
Witnesses paraded before a federal grand jury this week to look at this and other transactions. Fajardo, also a former deputy chief of staff in Rossello's administration, is said to be cooperating with federal authorities.
*Former House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo left the Capitol after a 25-year legislative career to face federal extortion, money-laundering and witness-tampering charges in connection with the sale of a public hospital in Manati.
Misla, a New Progressive Party veteran and national Republican committeeman until his indictment, is accused of being paid for his influence in securing the hospital sale for a group of doctors and businessmen, which included a high-school friend.
*A panel of judges appointed a special prosecutor Wednesday to investigate allegations that Hormigueros Mayor Francisco Rivera Toro accepted a $100,000 bribe from a company hired to clean up debris after Hurricane Georges in 1998. Rivera Toro, who belongs to the governing Popular Democratic Party, also is accused of instructing staff to erase all mention of the contract from computers.