Updated at: 09/25/2013 6:05 PM
By DAVID McFADDEN
(AP) KINGSTON, Jamaica - A former top enforcement officer for the U.S. Virgin Islands environment department has pleaded guilty to using the agency as a criminal enterprise, officials said Wednesday.
Roberto Tapia was the director of environmental enforcement for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning & Natural Resources when federal agents arrested him on drug trafficking charges in May after a surveillance operation.
Tapia was caught with seven kilograms (15 pounds) of cocaine on a ferry dock after a drug deal with two Puerto Rican men in waters a few miles (kilometers) off the main island of St. Thomas. He had just stepped off a government patrol boat in his uniform and was carrying his department-issued handgun and a backpack holding the drugs, according to U.S. authorities.
On Tuesday, Tapia, 55, pleaded guilty to racketeering in federal court in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Sentencing is scheduled for early January.
In entering his plea, Tapia admitted "extensive cocaine trafficking activities over a substantial period of time," a U.S. Justice Department statement said.
Authorities say Tapia used his status as a law enforcer to coordinate the transportation of cocaine between St. Thomas and buyers in the neighboring U.S. island of Puerto Rico.
"This individual chose to abuse his position of trust as a law enforcement officer for selfish gain at the expense of the safety and welfare of the community," said Ronald W. Sharpe, U.S. attorney for the three-island Caribbean territory.
Tapia became the environmental enforcement director in 2012, with an annual salary of roughly $73,000. He had previously worked as a local police officer for about a decade.
In September, Tapia was charged in a 34-count indictment along with six other defendants, including a territory police officer.
Michele Leonhart, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told U.S. lawmakers at a House committee hearing earlier this year that officials were concerned about upticks in drug trafficking in the Caribbean and the corrupting influence it can have on local law enforcers in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)