A Santero priest was among the dozens of suspects arrested by federal agents in an operation aimed at taking out an organization that smuggled drugs from Puerto Rico to the United States and rigged the island's lottery system to launder money. 

Orlando Robles Ortiz is accused of helping the group transport U.S.-bound cocaine from the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten to Puerto Rico and of consulting with a spirit named "Samuel" on which days were best to do so, officials said.

Robles also would consult the spirit before accepting new members to the organization, said Pedro Janer, acting special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean division.

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He noted that while Afro-Caribbean religions have played an important role in drug trafficking here, it is unusual for a Santero priest to help lead such an organization.

By Tuesday afternoon, at least 18 of the 22 suspects had been arrested in San Juan and in New York following a seven-month investigation named "Voodoo Sam."

"It appears the spirit was on vacation thanks to Holy Week," Janer said about the group's failure to recognize that federal agents were closing in thanks to a tip received from authorities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The organization had operated since 2003 and is accused of earning $127 million distributing at least 840 kilograms (1,850 pounds) of cocaine a year across Puerto Rico and to Connecticut and New York aboard commercial planes, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mariana Bauza.

Among those accused is a former stewardess for American Airlines, a former local basketball player and the former owner of a local baseball team.

The organization also had developed a contact within Puerto Rico's lottery office that would give them winning numbers that had not been claimed so they could hide their earnings, said Assistant U.S. Attorney José Capo.

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The group bought at least 33 tickets for their actual price plus 20 percent commission and then present the ticket as if it were theirs, he said. The lottery office would then write a check for the winning amount, helping the organization launder more than $1.4 million, he said.

The suspects face a maximum of life in prison if found guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press. 

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