An investigation led by the FBI, with the assistance of several local and federal organizations, has resulted in the arrests and indictments of dozens of members of a violent drug trafficking gang, Los 1,500, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
On June 8, 2023, a federal grand jury charged 40 individuals with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, possession and distribution of controlled substances, and firearm charges.
The FBI San Juan Violent Gang Safe Streets Task Force led the operation, and the collaborative efforts among the task force and other agencies—such as the Puerto Rico Department of Finance, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General (HUD-OIG), Puerto Rico Police Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the San Juan Municipal Police, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) San Juan Office—resulted in a successful mission.
Melvin Vélez-Carrasquillo, a San Juan Municipal Police Task Force Officer for FBI San Juan, shared how the joint effort led to the arrests and indictments. "The advantage of working with different agencies is being able to expand your investigation and concentrate resources where they are most needed. Each agency should have an objective that will help understand the organization’s modus operandi," said Velez-Carrasquillo. "For example, for this investigation, HUD-OIG helped us understand how the organization was using abandoned or empty apartment units to further the conspiracy.”
"Our agents and task force officers work to protect the most vulnerable citizens of Puerto Rico by locking up the most dangerous offenders."
Supervisory Special Agent Andrew Fisher, FBI San Juan
The presence of Los 1,500 has been felt heavily in communities throughout San Juan, with multiple members using illegal tactics to sustain the gang’s drug trafficking enterprise. FBI San Juan’s Violent Gang Safe Streets Task Force found that over an eight-year period, Los 1,500 saw significant financial gain and profit by distributing a plethora of drugs: heroin, cocaine base (crack), cocaine, marijuana, fentanyl, oxycodone (Percocet), and alprazolam (Xanax).
Gang members overtook abandoned apartments in public housing projects to prepare drugs for distribution at drug points across the island. And to keep control of their "territory" within these housing projects, the gang was known to intimidate and instill fear in members of the community—as well as housing administration and community leaders—including by resorting to violence. To further their drug trafficking criminal enterprise, which included distributing narcotics and transporting their profits, they bought stolen vehicles that were often obtained from carjackings. This resulted in a sustained increase in violent crime in the surrounding communities.
"The communities in Puerto Rico are faced with many challenges due to economic hardships, which create an opportunity for criminal enterprises to flourish. As a direct result of gang violence, these communities live in turmoil and have limited access to services that could improve their quality of life," said Guillermo Gonzalez, assistant special agent in charge of FBI San Juan’s Criminal Branch. "This is why violent gang investigations and arrest operations such as this have a tremendous positive impact in these neighborhoods. We can directly see an improvement as the violence decreases. The FBI is directly enabling these citizens to contribute to future generations' development and secure Puerto Rico's future."
With the investigation starting during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, investigators were met with many obstacles—but kept those difficulties from affecting the quality of their work.
Agents had to follow leads, find reliable sources, build strong relationships with fellow law enforcement officers, and gather evidence during a time where life was put on hold. Special Agent Robert Maj of FBI San Juan is proud of their team and the number of challenges they overcame and adapted to.
"The pandemic strained already limited police resources in Puerto Rico. Violence and drug trafficking in the area only temporarily declined, then rapidly soared," said Maj. "Our team put in the work and continued to make arrests and seizures, conduct interviews, and recruit informants and cooperating witnesses.”
FBI San Juan entered this operation with hopes of restoring peace in communities throughout Puerto Rico—and their investigative work was able to do just that. Law enforcement interrupted the work of Los 1,500 and effectively took down gang members, from runners and lookouts to those leading the conspiracy.
And the investigative work of FBI San Juan and its partners not only uncovered a lucrative drug conspiracy spanning across the island of Puerto Rico but an equally destructive relationship with firearms, too. Of the 40 indicted gang members, 29 also face at least one charge of possession of firearms. Six defendants also face charges related to three different murders.
"Safe Streets Task Force agents and task force officers are committed to reducing violent crime in every FBI division, and San Juan is no exception," said Supervisory Special Agent Andrew Fisher, who oversees the squad in charge of this investigation. "Our agents and task force officers work to protect the most vulnerable citizens of Puerto Rico by locking up the most dangerous offenders. Life is hard living in an area controlled by a violent gang. Our team sees that reality every day, and it serves as motivation to remove the threat and improve the lives of the people of Puerto Rico."
While FBI San Juan is proud of the results of this case, they are not finished.
"There is no question that putting away 40 violent gang members is a win. Still, we are under no illusion that our work here is done," said Joseph Gonzalez, the special agent in charge of the FBI San Juan Division, which covers Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"Our commitment is to continue to disrupt drug trafficking operations by dismantling violent gangs such as this one to bring peace to the communities we serve. We can only do that through continued and effective interagency collaboration, which is why these task forces are important."