Puerto Rico's drug turmoil

SUN JOURNAL

Murder: An expanding drug war has pushed the island's homicide rate to more than three times the U.S. average.

August 24, 2002

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Edwin Melendez Primos died from a gunshot wound in his right ear. Alcidez Bauza Rivera, 31, was found with five bullets lodged in his body. And 20-year- old Jose Almazar Correa was killed after a shootout in a small town near here.

Their deaths were notable because they were among 16 people killed last month in the same week and for pretty much the same reason: an expanding drug war that has given Puerto Rico the dubious distinction of being one of the bloodiest places in the United States.

According to federal crime statistics, Puerto Rico's homicide rate of 18 per 100,000 people in 2000 was more than three times the national average and higher than that of any U.S. state. But as the national average has decreased about 30 percent since 1995, Puerto Rico's rate has remained about the same. About 400 people have died this year, and authorities blame the violence on turf battles fueled by a scarcity of drugs on the island since last fall.

Puerto Rico has always served as a trans-shipment point for drugs - primarily from Colombia - to the U.S. mainland. But with increased surveillance since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, fewer drugs are flowing through.

As a result, authorities say, more gangs are competing to supply an increasing demand and killing each other to protect their respective turfs.

"There is a problem," Miguel Pereira, superintendent of the Puerto Rico police, says of the escalating violence, and it's a problem whose root is in poverty and addictions.

He and other officials say the key to breaking the cycle of violence is getting rid of the addictions that make the trade so lucrative.

"We have a lot of gangs who protect their territories," said Dr. Pio Rechani, executive director of the Institute of Forensic Sciences, which investigates violent crimes. These are not organized groups, Rechani said, but loosely allied bands of low-level drug dealers in one neighborhood or another.

Most of the homicides are occurring in San Juan and the greater metropolitan areas of Bayamon, Carolina and Caguas. But the southern city of Ponce also has a high homicide rate. Of 372 homicides reported as of mid-July, 297 occurred in the five cities, which also are among the most populated.

About 4 million people live on the island, with at least half concentrated in areas in and around San Juan.

Authorities said cocaine is the drug of choice among users but also say there has been a shift to heroin over the past three years, expanding the war.

"We have seen a disturbing increase of heroin use," Pereira said. "We need to remove customers from the client base."

In Puerto Rico, many of the shootouts that end in death happen at low-income housing complexes, such as one in San Juan that is said to be the largest in the United States with more than 100 apartment buildings.

"You can't go in there without a gun. Forget it," Agent Orlando Morales, a 16-year police veteran, said during a recent patrol. "At night, all you hear is gunfire."

The newspapers report the shootings, but because most of them take place in poorer towns, public outrage hasn't reached a climax. Nearly all of the victims are young males from poor neighborhoods, as are most of the suspects in the cases that have resulted in arrests.

Many of the shooters are using pistols and automatic weapons brought to the island from various states, including Florida, New York, Illinois and Texas, according to ballistic tests that can trace the origin of weapons.

Rechani said the shooters' weapons of choice tend to be automatic with a lot of firepower - AK-47s, AR-15s and 9 mm pistols. "Instead of six bullets, you have double or more," he said.

The government is trying to address the problem by incorporating the various government agencies into an "anti-crime plan" devised this year.

"The only way to fight a complex problem is to come up with a complex solution," said Pereira, who was appointed to head the police force in December.

One of the department's biggest challenges is overcoming a reputation for corruption. About 60 police officers have been arrested in the past year on a variety of corruption charges, many of them with ties to the drug trade.

"There is a lack of trust the Puerto Rican people have for police," Pereira said. "Are we being misjudged? The answer is no. The arrests of police officers represent less than 1 percent of the department. Still, even one officer is one officer too many."

Among the department's proposed solutions: more cooperation in task force operations involving the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI; pay raises for police officers, who earn an average of $22,000 a year; and more training for the 19,000-member force.

Plans are also under way to increase the number of forensic investigators by 10 for a total of 40. The investigators, assigned to the Institute of Forensic Sciences in San Juan, cover homicides in about 65 percent of the island. The institute is considering assigning a unit to Ponce.

"Murder is the principal concern, obviously, in Puerto Rico. And we are solving more murders than we did a year ago," said Pereira, adding that about 40 percent of the pending cases have been cleared.

"That represents a very good police effort," he said. "It means citizens are misbehaving, not that cops are indifferent.

"I think we would be very successful if, in the end of two years, we'd have a 30 to 35 percent drop in the murder rate and if we solved 45 percent of the murder cases by end of this year," Pereira said. "That's the goal we're working toward."

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