The mail from Puerto Rico supplies loved ones in Connecticut with a steady stream of tropical foods, gifts and other packages. For drug traffickers, it is also an irresistible pipeline for smuggling cocaine.
The U.S. Postal Service and private overnight couriers have become popular among drug kingpins in Puerto Rico, a favored stepping stone for Colombian cocaine. Federal investigators say the criminals ship to areas with big islander populations such as Connecticut for sale in local cities and beyond.
"Anywhere there is a good amount of Puerto Ricans, you see the issue," said Martin Vega Jr., a postal inspector in Hartford who is assigned full time to detect narcotics in the mail.
The cocaine, generally one or two kilograms per parcel, arrives stashed inside everything from car parts to bologna. In cities such as Hartford and New Haven, authorities say traffickers often have packages delivered to a false address and wait for the delivery truck. In other cases they stop drivers along their routes and ask for packages with their names on them. Or they pay addicts to pick up the parcels.
Authorities across the country have reported seeing Puerto Rican traffickers among those using the mail as low-cost carrier for drugs. Although no statistics are available on which states receive the most, the cocaine sent from Puerto Rico to major cities such as New York and Chicago often pales in comparison with the amount of marijuana or methamphetamines sent from within the continental United States.
"The majority of illegal drugs that are coming in the mail, with the exception of cocaine, are coming from the west coast," said Erin Mulvey, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in New York City.
Michael Romano, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said drug seizures nationwide have been on the rise as the agency fights the smuggling more aggressively.
In fiscal year 2010, authorities seized 37,700 pounds of illegal drugs and 1,319 people were arrested, he said. That compares with about 8,000 pounds of drugs found in the mail in each of fiscal years 2005 and 2006.
A Caribbean island 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, Puerto Rico holds appeal for traffickers because of its long coastlines, its proximity to source countries such as Colombia and its status as a U.S. territory.
Once drugs are smuggled into Puerto Rico, typically from the neighboring Dominican Republic, it is easier for them to reach the U.S. mainland. While customs inspectors can freely open any suspicious package entering the country, parcels mailed within the United States — including Puerto Rico — cannot be opened without a search warrant from a judge.
Postal inspectors rely on undisclosed profiling techniques to pick out packages for investigation. Vega said inspectors cannot open a parcel without permission from the sender or addressee or a warrant, though he said they have developed successful methods.
Connecticut-based mail inspectors confiscated 40 parcels with illegal drugs in the last fiscal year, with 184 pounds of marijuana and 16 pounds of cocaine, according to the Inspection Service. That was down from previous years, and authorities said numbers can vary widely based on enforcement strategies. Statistics were not available for the precise amount originating in Puerto Rico.
Last week, state police arrested two people in Waterbury, Conn., after they allegedly accepted a package mailed from Puerto Rico containing a kilogram of cocaine, with a street value of $33,000.
"The problems with Puerto Rico have jumped more on the radar screen in recent times," Romano said. "We have postal inspection teams across the U.S. as well as in Puerto Rico to rid the mail of these narcotics."
He said the agency is especially concerned about the risks to clerks or letter carriers who could become unwitting victims of traffickers who use violence to obtain packages. Another agency spokesman, Lawrence Dukes, said it does not have statistics on any drug-related assaults.
In Connecticut, where Puerto Ricans account for about 6 percent of the 3.5 million people, Vega says a small but steady amount of cocaine is hidden among the mountains of packages that islanders send to extended family and friends.
The DEA says most of the cocaine reaching New England arrives hidden in cars or trucks from the Mexican border, but large-scale traffickers also send small shipments by mail two or three times a week. In Connecticut, the major cities have also served as gateways for drugs bound for western Massachusetts and Vermont, according to Brian Crowell, DEA's assistant agent in charge for Connecticut and Rhode Island.
"It's either going to Puerto Ricans they grew up with in Puerto Rico or they have family connections with so they can apply pressure to people if things go missing and to keep people from cooperating," Crowell said.
Authorities have had some successes catching the smugglers.
In May 2010, Connecticut drug kingpin George Sanchez was sentenced to nearly 28 years in federal prison for his role in a group that shipped drugs from Puerto Rico to homes in Bridgeport via the mail and other courier services.
Federal prosecutors say he smuggled in about two kilograms of cocaine each week by wrapping the drugs inside electronic devices such as video cassette players, clothing and other items. Some of it was processed into crack and supplied to other traffickers in the city, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
In Puerto Rico, U.S. agents arrested seven Postal Service workers in September following a DEA investigation, code-named Operation Dirty Eagles. The workers were accused of shipping cocaine and heroin to the U.S. mainland.
The Postal Service's Office of Inspector General, which investigates corruption cases, declined to comment on whether postal workers elsewhere are suspected of cooperating with traffickers.
Vega, one of 13 postal inspectors in Connecticut, was the only one on narcotics duty until another inspector was recently assigned to help him.
"I am busy," he said. "I think we're doing a very good job of at least reducing the amount that is being sent, because we seize quite a bit."
For Vega, who is a Puerto Rico native, one advantage of the job has been regular trips to the island to help with investigations. But the assignments can be bittersweet.
"It bothers me that the island that I still call home has been trampled on and overtaken by the drug trade," he said.