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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Corruption Finds Fertile Soil In Police Department
by Robert Becker
AUGUST 24, 2001
It was one of the most murderous and efficient criminal gangs in Puerto Rican history.
The gang pulled off robberies, kidnappings, extortion, arsons and, most ruthlessly, murder for hire. Their victims included unwary diamond merchants, the son of a wealthy San Juan numbers racketeer, and two leading members of rival criminal gangs. Led by their criminal mastermind Alejo Maldonado, they cut a swath of terror across Puerto Rico in the 1970s.
Apart from their ruthlessness, cunning and brutality, the gang also enjoyed an advantage that no other criminal organizations on the island had -- they were cops, members of the elite Criminal Investigations Corps of the Puerto Rico Police. Maldonado, a highly intelligent agent who was recruited to the Department as a student at the University of Puerto Rico, was himself believed to have had a hand in at least eight murders.
The Alejo Maldonado gang was eventually dismantled, thanks to the brave work of FBI agents. Maldonado and several of his cohorts were convicted in 1983 for the kidnapping of a San Juan jeweler the year before. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, and he soon began offering testimony against many of the 25 members of his gang in hopes of getting released before he dies. Maldonado and his band of corrupt cops dealt a blow to public confidence from which the Puerto Rican police have still not recovered.
Now, a new stain has besmirched the reputation of Puerto Ricos cops -- the arrests of 29 members of the police, including some members of an elite anti-drug unit, on charges of transporting and protecting cocaine shipments set in motion by an FBI sting.
FBI agents said it was the single largest case of police corruption in the agencys history. It surpassed large-scale police corruption cases the FBI uncovered in Cleveland in 1998 and in San Antonio, Texas earlier this year. The Puerto Rico cops were lured to the U.S. Navy base at Roosevelt Roads ostensibly for training. Disarmed, they posed no resistance to arresting agents.
The undercover snare was named, fittingly, "Operation Lost Honor."
Apart from the sheer scope of this corruption case, it has also been marked by the graphic nature of the evidence against the accused cops. In bail hearings in U.S. District Court, authorities played undercover videotapes they took of the suspect cops. The cops, who were assigned to units in San Juan, Caguas, Luquillo, Humacao and Fajardo, were caught on tape discussing the transporting and protection of cocaine shipments in their official police vehicles.
In one video, a cop tells an undercover agent he would murder a rival drug trafficker for $20,000
While the undercover operation was spectacular, it caught no one by surprise. The public assumes most cops, whose starting salary is $18,900 per year, are corrupt. The lack of respect for police has in turn generated a casual attitude among many citizens towards obeying the law. It is manifested in many ways, from reckless driving on the highways, to ignoring red lights and stop signs, to pervasive littering and illegal dumping to widespread tax evasion.
On a more ominous level, there are entrenched criminal networks of drug traffickers, money launderers and illegal lottery operators taking advantage of the islands anything-goes ambience. They operate with seeming impunity, despite the presence now of more than 19,000 police on an island measuring just 35 miles by 100 miles.
Former Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo, a no-nonsense former FBI agent who served eight years as the islands top cop, said that in the wake of the latest corruption scandal, the Police Department will have to take dramatic action to restore public confidence. The current superintendent, Pierre Vivoni, pointedly responded that the corruption had begun under Toledo, who served eight years as superintendent, versus Vivonis eight months in office.
Many would argue, however, that that confidence has never been restored since the Maldonado and other scandals.
The cops deserve condemnation for whatever individual crimes they may have committed. The low salaries paid police can also be offered as an excuse for the crooked cops. But the largest factor in police corruption lies in the publics indifference, even antipathy, to obeying the law.
Maldonado himself painted a fatalistic picture of the enduring nature of police corruption in a 1990 jailhouse interview with the San Juan Star.
" Police corruption is eternal," he said. "It was not something we made up, it was there and it still exists. Our evil was not ours alone. it was everybody around us."
Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org