It's been a point of controversy and contention for years: A place that's gotten some of the most U.S. taxpayer money in history for causes like hurricane relief and rebuilding its electric grid is also known as one of the most corrupt when it comes to how all that cash is spent. Today, we dig deep into Puerto Rico's unique history of corruption with the federal agents assigned to tackle it.
This is an FBI SWAT team practicing hostage rescue strategies in the mountains above San Juan on the island of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico isn’t just known for its idyllic landscapes and disastrous hurricanes, it’s infamous for its reputation as one of the most corrupt places on the planet. FBI agents here are kept busy working cases where violence and crime frequently link to public officials and political figures.
One needn’t look far to find recent Puerto Rican officials allegedly running cons involving huge amounts of your tax dollars starting with the response to Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The FBI arrested Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary and five others in an alleged scheme to funnel millions in relief funds to certain contractors, which they deny.
Also arrested: a Federal Emergency Management Agency official accused in a $1.8 billion bribery scheme. She denies it; a colleague pleaded guilty.
Puerto Rico’s last governor, Wanda Vasquez, was among officials accused of mismanaging earthquake relief supplies.
Arrested in other recent corruption probes: a group of eight including a Puerto Rico Senator; and two members of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. All say they’re innocent.
Rafael Riviere: It doesn’t have to be only hurricane relief money. It happens now with the pandemic relief money, every time that the government wants to get money fast to people. It's like the processes are not set in place. We don't take the time to set up processes in place. And I think that creates opportunities.
Rafael Riviere says corruption is a well-known way of life in Puerto Rico.
Riviere: We like to do real life scenarios.
I spoke with him shortly before he retired as FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Juan field office.
Riviere: We’re a colony from Spain. And then even when the United States came in, the way Puerto Rico was looked at was like, you know, the position in the Caribbean, kind of like how we could help the United States, but it's not incorporated in the same way that a different state would be.
Sharyl: You were born in Puerto Rico?
Riviere: Yes, I was. So growing up here, people, I don't think we saw as corruption. It was just way of doing business, honestly. And that's part of the problem. Because it's kind of the culture. And when we're looking at the elected officials, ‘Oh, they should know better.’ But, when we look at somebody that might work in a particular department of the government that they might facilitate a permit, I'm like, ‘Well, this is the way we do it, this person will always bring me baskets of flowers or whatever, and of course, I put him at the front of the line.' Or 'he gives me this money on the side so I speed up the process, but that's, what's wrong with that?' And we're trying to change that.
Puerto Rico has earned its notoriety with some of the FBI’s biggest cases of public officials and police on the take. Felix Alvarado is a top FBI agent over public corruption.
Felix Alvarado: We've had in 2001, for example, we had Operation Honor Perdido. It's called Lost Honor in Spanish.
Operation Lost Honor resulted in the arrests of dozens of police. At trial, jurors were shown video of a Puerto Rico Police evidence technician advising an undercover agent to murder a deadbeat dealer.
Alvarado: Then we had operation Dark Justice where we had a group of police officers, about 11 police officers, six former police officers, that were arrested for kidnapping and other crimes.
But even those cases were soon eclipsed by another.
Sharyl (on-camera): The biggest police corruption case in FBI history happened right here in Puerto Rico in 2010, Operation Guard Shack. Hundreds of FBI agents were brought to the island to take down a staggering number of law enforcement officials.
Alvarado: We had Operation Guard Shack, which is very well known by now where police officers were calling what they thought was drug dealers making transactions, either they were participating as sort of bodyguards or helping them out transport drugs from one point to another
Riviere: We found out one of them was selling like crack cocaine, or distributing it. And we asked him through our sources to purchase certain amount, it was like a thousand caps or something. And this guy came in uniform on the police motorcycle, and opened up the, they call it the trunk or whatever, and pulled them out like nothing. And then in the middle of a parking lot in a shopping center and a part of me is like, I'm kind of freaking out here to tell you the truth. And it was kind of like, 'Hey yeah, here you go, this is what you asked me for.' And he was fully uniformed.
Sharyl: What does that tell you?
Riviere: Probably, he didn't see any risk. ‘Hey this is what we do, it’s normal, people do it,’ you know?
Another police evidence officer got caught on tape bringing along her young child while she was selling confiscated weapons on the black market.
Riviere: So one of the sources that we're working with agree to purchase a couple of weapons, and she shows up and then gets in the car with him. And she has her child on her lap. And she's pulling this weapon from this bag. And you know, we have a camera in the car, of course. So we see the kid watching her passing guns to him, a couple of guns like it was like normal, again, no shock value and ‘This is what I do.’
In all, 500 FBI employees and 50 SWAT teams were brought to Puerto Rico to make more than 130 arrests. That was 2010. To this day, Operation Guard Shack remains the FBI’s largest one-day take-down, and the biggest corruption case in its history.
Today, the FBI SWAT team is always on standby, and under Riviere’s tenure, a third team was added under the heading of public corruption. Several dozen agents are split into three squads targeting crooked elected officials, police and correctional officers, and judicial corruption.
Riviere says the FBI enjoys a special confidence among the locals and that despite Puerto Rico’s reputation and history, there are plenty of honest people doing the right thing.
Riviere: Just because we arrested 10 cops, that doesn't mean the police of Puerto Rico is a problem. They have 10 cops that were a problem. I feel like our mission here, it might look different if you compare it to the other offices, but this is what we do. We have a little more exposure because people expect a lot of us, and they know that when there's a case, or there's a situation or corruption issue, the FBI is involved. People have a lot of trust in us here, which is great. It makes our job easier.
Sharyl (on-camera): By the way, just before Christmas, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary Keleher, who was getting a $250,000 a year salary, was sentenced to six months in prison on two corruption charges.