SAN JUAN (Reuters) - Federal authorities arrested 16 current and former Puerto Rican police officers on corruption charges ranging from allegedly taking bribes to protect drug dealers to extortion and planting evidence, officials said on Thursday.
Many of the officers belong to a drug-fighting unit in Puerto Rico's police department, said Carlos Cases, an FBI special agent.
Cases said the officers allegedly operated like a criminal gang, using their guns and badges to commit robbery, extortion and illegal narcotics sales. He compared their alleged exploits to the 2001 Denzel Washington film, "Training Day," which centered on a corrupt police narcotics squad.
If convicted, the officers could face up to life in prison for the charges, which include racketeering and robbery.
"The indictment portrays a classic criminal shakedown, an organized crime spree of which the most experienced mafia family would have been proud," said David O'Neil, acting assistant general of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
"The people wielding the guns and stealing the drugs here weren't mob goodfellas or mafia soldiers - these were police officers."
The Caribbean island's police department has long been plagued with corruption cases and roiled by charges of misconduct.
In July, the Puerto Rico government and the U.S. Justice Department announced an agreement to make sweeping changes in Puerto Rico's Police Department. The accord was aimed at curbing violence and abuse within the force's ranks and settling a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the department in December.
Prosecutors said in the indictment the arrested officers frequently worked in teams of two to five to commit crimes, often targeting suspected criminals.
The officers allegedly planted evidence to make false arrests, then extorted money in exchange for their victims' release from custody, according to the indictment.
The officers also paid their victims to give false testimony, manipulate court records and fail to appear in court when required so that cases would be dismissed, officials said.
In one case, two officers allegedly conducted a traffic stop in April 2012 and stole approximately $22,000 they believed to be illegal drug proceeds, the indictment said.
Four other officers are suspected of illegally entering an apartment and stealing approximately $30,000, which they believed were illegal lottery proceeds.
Puerto Rico Police Superintendent Jose Caldero called the arrests "regrettable."
"The important thing is we are doing something," he said. "We are cleaning the house and the work will continue."
In October 2010, the FBI arrested 130 people, including 90 law enforcement officers, for providing protection to island drug dealers.
The agreement between Puerto Rico's government and the Justice Department includes new rules for the handling of civilian complaints and internal investigations. It introduces strict new policies on the use of force by police officers to combat the commonwealth's high crime levels.
It also focuses on recruitment and training, and contains new measures to strengthen oversight of the 17,000-member police force.
By a Reuters reporter in San Juan; writing by Kevin Gray; editing by David Adams and Andrew Hay