Puerto Rico/U.S. Virgin Islands High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program Receives National Recognition
|U.S. Attorney’s Office February 20, 2014|
ST. THOMAS—White House Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske has awarded the St. Thomas Major Organization Investigations unit of the Puerto Rico/U.S. Virgin Islands High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program the 2013 national award for Outstanding Task Force Effort, announced United States Attorney Ronald W. Sharpe.
United States Attorney Sharpe, who served as the Chairperson of the PR/USVI HIDTA from June 2012 through December 2013, congratulated the St. Thomas MOI on being chosen for this prestigious award. “Close collaboration with our federal and local law enforcement partners is critical to our efforts to reduce the supply of illicit drugs and the violence associated with its distribution and use,” Sharpe said.
“The DEA Caribbean Division is very proud of the accomplishments of our St. Thomas HIDTA Task Force, and we congratulate them for this well-deserved 2013 ONDCP Director’s Award,” said Vito Salvatore Guarino, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Caribbean Division. “Key to the St. Thomas HIDTA Task Force sustained success is the close coordination and joint work with our law enforcement partners VIPD, ATF, FBI, HSI, IRS, CBP, and the USMS.”
Disrupting and dismantling drug trafficking organizations is fundamental to the mission of the PR/USVI HIDTA. In furtherance of this goal, the St. Thomas Major Organization Investigations (MOI) unit formed an operation known by law enforcement as Operation Franco’s Folly/Excess Baggage that targeted the trafficking of narcotics through the St. Thomas Airport. Through the course of the operation, law enforcement employed innovative investigative tactics while maintaining a high level of secrecy; which led to the arrest and indictment of 28 individuals, the seizure of over 40 kilograms of cocaine destined for Puerto Rico, Florida, and Georgia; and the seizure of a substantial amount of assets. Operation Franco’s Folly also uncovered significant public corruption, which led to the arrest and prosecution of several airport baggage handlers and a Transportation Security Administration officer, whose official positions and access to sensitive areas of the airport posed serious risks to national security.
Significantly, the operation revealed that Roberto Tapia, director of Enforcement Operations for the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR), utilized his official supervisory law enforcement position as well as a DPNR vessel and automobile to facilitate narcotics smuggling. Angelo Hill, former chief of the Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD) assisted Tapia by helping him traffic narcotics and avoid detection by federal law enforcement. In September 2013, Tapia pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in connection with his use of DPNR as a criminal enterprise to engage in illegal drug trafficking activities. Angelo Hill also pleaded guilty to related charges. Both men are in custody awaiting sentencing.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy’s HIDTA program provides federal resources to designated areas to help reduce drug trafficking and its harmful consequences. Law enforcement organizations within HIDTAs assess drug trafficking problems and design specific initiatives to decrease the production, manufacture, transportation, distribution, and chronic use of drugs and money laundering. The HIDTA program plays a vital role in the Obama Administration’s efforts to make the nation safer and healthier by reducing drug use and its consequences. There are currently 28 HIDTAs, which include approximately 16 percent of all counties in the United States and 60 percent of the U.S. population. HIDTA-designated counties are located in 46 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia.
Sharpe also commended the agencies that comprise the St. Thomas MOI for their efforts in securing the award and for the overall success of the HIDTA program. These agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD), United States Marshals Service (USMS), Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CID), U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Additional information about the HIDTA program is available at www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov.