SAN JUAN – At least 19 people out of 30 wanted by police were arrested on different days by federal and local authorities in Puerto Rico for illegally selling 35 guns, including AR-15 semi-automatic rifles of the kind used in some of the most recent mass shootings in the United States.
These 30 individuals face 46 charges – 22 under federal jurisdiction and eight under state law – for selling arms illegally, specifically in public places like the parking lots of shopping malls in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez told the press Tuesday.
“If it weren’t for the work of state and federal police, all these guns would be taking innocent people’s lives,” Vazquez told a press conference.
She said the investigation took months of hard work by agents of the San Juan Police Department’s Drug Division, the Puerto Rico police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“I am grateful to them all, because this has really been a cooperative effort aimed at getting these weapons off the streets,” Vazquez said.
According to the authorities, sale prices of these handguns and rifles range between $2,000 and $3,500 depending on the accessories with which they are fitted.
“How many innocent people in Puerto Rico could be the victims of these guns, which are also used to guard the traffickers’ strongholds and carry out their drug-dealing activities?” the head of the Justice Department asked.
For her part, the United States attorney for Puerto Rico, Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, described this case as “very important” because of the high incidence of crime reported on the island following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, particularly in the Bayamon municipality.
“We have removed these individuals from the streets and shopping centers,” Rodriguez said about the danger posed by those who deal in illegal arms that are not made in Puerto Rico but arrive by sea or air from the United States.
For his part, the Puerto Rican commissioner of Safety and Public Protection, Hector Pesquera, hailed the collaboration between federal and local agents.
“We realized that this was a highly significant case. What it does is pinpoint an area we now see as a center for firearms sales,” Pesquera said, adding that some of those under arrest are members of a criminal organization, while others are totally independent.
If they are found guilty, some of those in custody could face up to 10 years in prison for the possession of automatic weapons, or even a life sentence if these weapons were used in some incident related to drug trafficking.