SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - With 120 killings logged in less than seven weeks, slayings in Puerto Rico are running at a pace that could make 2004 the commonwealth's deadliest in a decade.
"We recognize the number of murders is way too many," said police Superintendent Augustin Cartagena, in office only three weeks. "We are sending a message to the gang members and drug dealers that this is going to stop."
So far this year, an average of five people are slain in Puerto Rico every two days - a rate that, unless it's curbed, could push the number of slayings on the island past 900 this year. While drug violence is driving the deaths, also at stake is Puerto Rico's lucrative tourism industry.
"This problem is about gangs and drugs, and the faster we can get these people off the streets, it will have an impact on crime," Cartagena said. "There's no need for anyone visiting us to be worried about crime, because it's not been taking place in those areas."
The superintendent is moving fast to make changes within the Puerto Rico Police Department to respond to the homicide wave.
Officers, he said, will saturate high-crime neighborhoods where the homicides are concentrated, and more resources will be poured into investigations so police can make arrests faster. Last week, Cartagena also replaced two top officers and consolidated the agency's 13 districts into four - all aimed at bringing supervisors at police headquarters closer to officers and crime in the streets.
On Tuesday, Chief Inspector Edwin Rivera Merced announced three arrests in one of the island's most spectacular crimes so far this year - a triple homicide Jan. 18 at a nightclub in Yabucoa that wounded 11 others.
Still, the pace of homicides so far in 2004 is stunning.
Puerto Rico's homicide rate typically exceeds that of any U.S. state or city. Last year, when 779 people were killed, the commonwealth's homicide rate was about 20.5 per 100,000 people; by comparison, the nation's homicide rate ran about 5 1/2 per 100,000 in 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available. Baltimore's rate was 37.7 per 100,000 during that time.
If Puerto Rico's homicides continue on the pace set so far in 2004, the island's homicide rate could hit nearly 25 per 100,000. To compare, Chicago has recorded 43 homicides in 2004, down about 12 year-to-date; in New York City - with a population more than twice the size of Puerto Rico's - about 50 people have been killed so far this year.
The last time Puerto Rico saw such a spate of homicides was in 1994, when a record 995 people were killed. In response, then-Gov. Pedro Rosello made one of the island's most controversial decisions by using National Guard troops to augment local law enforcement as part of an island-wide crackdown.
The effort began to shrink the numbers of homicides, but in recent years the annual numbers of slayings have once again been creeping upward. Many of the slayings this year have telltale signs of drug-gang turf battles.
Among the latest victims were two brothers, Jonael Lebron Martinez, 19, and Rafael, 21, who were walking through a public-housing complex last week in Rio Piedras, just outside San Juan, and were gunned down. No arrests have been made.
Nilda Rodriguez Moran, a neighbor of one of the men, said the brothers could often be seen talking to friends in the Galateao complex in the days leading to their deaths. While police are investigating whether the double-slaying was drug-related, Moran said the men did not appear to be dealing drugs. "You would see them out walking around, but that doesn't mean anything," she said.
Roger Dunbar, a criminologist with the University of Miami, said such killings are typical when rival drug gangs battle it out on the streets - similar to Miami's infamous crime wave of the 1980s. In Miami, "we had the Cocaine Cowboys back in the 1980s," he said. "And there are signs [in Puerto Rico] that drugs are what's helping to push crimes."
That's true in Ponce, a city of 194,000 on the island's south coast, where officials point to drugs as the root of the 20 homicides there this year - up from a handful a year ago.
The problem has captured the attention of Gov. Sila Calderon, who appointed Cartagena last month after the previous superintendent quit for a higher-paying job in the private sector. She unveiled a package of crime-fighting initiatives two weeks ago and pledged to make a difference quickly. Her approach centers on encouraging informants to assist authorities and letting police search some mailboxes for firearms.
Some critics say her proposals don't go far enough.
Maria de Lourdes Santiago, vice president of Puerto Rican Independence Party, said efforts should be targeted at the island's struggling elementary and at secondary schools, which often do not prepare students adequately to enter college or get good jobs.
"There has to be some attention paid to this," Lourdes Santiago said. "There are children who see they don't have very much of a future, and some of them will get involved in drugs and contribute to crimes."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.