WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A lengthy FBI sting has exposed a ring of cocaine and contraband smuggling that was protected by corrupt guards and even a drug counselor in two Florida prisons, state and federal prosecutors said Thursday.
The investigation began two years ago when undercover FBI agents acting on a tip approached the officers for help trafficking drugs. In exchange for cash, the officers agreed to use their positions to protect, hide and facilitate cocaine shipments, according to a grand jury indictment against 16 of the 22 arrested.
An FBI SWAT team carried out the arrests simultaneously Thursday at the Glades facility and nearby South Bay jail. At least 18 are former corrections officers, according to state and federal officials. All have been fired.
“We cannot allow those involved in the administration of justice at any level to misuse their positions to line their own pockets,” said Jeffrey Sloman U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Southern District.
The 16 in federal court are charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and attempting to possess cocaine. The State Attorney’s Office in Palm Beach County is pursuing charges of bribery and conspiracy to introduce contraband into prisons against the remaining six.
The indictment from “Operation Blind Justice” alleges that on at least nine occasions, the defendants transported what they believed to be multiple kilos of cocaine from Miami to West Palm Beach. Prosecutors wouldn’t say exactly what was in the packages or what happened to them upon delivery.
In exchange, the guards collectively received $145,000, with individuals earning anywhere from $5,000 and $33,000 apiece, Sloman said.
It was just the most recent in a string of federal corruption arrests throughout South Florida, tangling up politicians ranging from the county commission to school board. John Gillies, special agent in charge of the local FBI branch, said fighting such abuses of power was their top criminal priority.
Drugs are a particular scourge in Florida prisons, Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil said, because they inspire aggression against guards and other inmates.
“Our best defense against drugs in our institutions is the eyes and ears of our employees – the officers working in the institution,” McNeil said. “In this case the problem involved our staff, but I want you to know that in this case they were also the solution.”