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Puerto Rico's Top Cop Faces A Fight On All Fronts
By Iván Román
December 10, 2001
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- By many accounts, the nameplate on the island's new police superintendent's desk should read: "Don Quixote de Puerto Rico."
Corruption in the police force is rampant. About 40 officers are awaiting trial, charged with protecting cocaine shipments.
Morale and pay are low -- so low that union leaders say four out of five officers have second jobs just to make ends meet.
The murder rate on the island -- much of it fueled by the heated drug trade -- is soaring and already has surpassed last year's.
And there's no quick fix in sight.
A lost cause? Miguel Pereira doesn't think so. The island's new top crime-fighter says he understands the challenges ahead and is focusing on the long term. He doesn't see himself tilting at windmills, but rather straightening out a mess -- a mission that his boss, Gov. Sila Calderon, called on him to do as chief of Puerto Rico's troubled Ports Authority.
"I think it's a very difficult but achievable goal," said Pereira, a former federal prosecutor who started his new job a week ago. "I would not have accepted the responsibility had I had any inclination or inkling that I was bound to fail. I'm not going to fail."
Many of those who applaud his optimism realize the near-impossible battle he faces. Puerto Rico's 300-mile open coastline and proximity to other islands make it an easy springboard for drug trafficking to the United States. About a quarter of the drugs never leave the island, spawning bloody turf wars that have helped spike this year's number of homicides as of Thursday to 705 -- 76 more than at the same point last year.
Police may have inadvertently spurred the spilling of more blood by stepping up drug arrests, tightening security at the airports after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and seizing more drugs on the high seas and on boats being unloaded onshore. These measures sparked turf wars among drug smugglers, who started battling each other over the remaining drug spoils. While acknowledging these serious problems, Pereira also notes that property crime and so-called random crime are down.
"It's a problem, but it's not the kind of problem or as big a problem as we all perceive it is," Pereira said. "Obviously, some aspects are huge problems, like the acts of violence. Those are really disproportionate compared to the ratio of the population."
But the 19,000-strong police force seems ill-equipped to handle the violence. Budget constraints often force the police to react to, rather than prevent, violent crime. Many times police officers are outgunned and outrun by drug dealers and traffickers who have better cars. More than 60 percent of the police cars are more than 5 years old -- far beyond their usual life span -- making them the department's most critical equipment problem.
Salaries remain low
And little money often means low morale. Officers fresh out of the academy make $1,525 a month before taxes, little more than half the $2,760 monthly starting salary of an Orlando city police officer.
And it costs more to live on the island. After taxes, an officer takes home about $1,100, which police union leaders say forces 80 percent of them to get a second job.
Many point to low pay and greed as the main reasons officers fall to corruption. Two officers are in jail now for stealing a car-theft victim's ATM card. A San Juan municipal police officer was caught last week robbing a fast-food store at gunpoint.
With tears in his eyes, he the officer bemoaned that he constantly risked his life and couldn't pay his family's bills.
As the front line, officers in Puerto Rico have a more dangerous job than many of their counterparts elsewhere. Five officers have been killed in the line of duty this year, more than the four fatalities last year in Florida, which has four times as many people.
Until the person at the top improves working conditions, advocates say, it will be difficult to make a real difference in the police.
"People are always wary of change," said Jose de Jesus Serrano, president of the United Front of Organized Police, adding that Pereira will be given a chance "to put the police back on track again."
Rising to the challenge
He comes to the job with solid credentials: a Purple Heart received while flying combat jets over southeast Asia; the discipline and strategy from 12 years of prosecuting federal drug cases; and the experience, 12 years before that, as an Air Force military lawyer.Taking over a severely underfunded department in an administration that slashed this year's budgets to make up for last year's deficits is a challenge. The government is looking for more money to raise officers' pay and benefits in hard economic times, but it's unclear where that goes on the new list of priorities -- and in the bigger plan to fight crime.
"The police have to deal with this thing a step at a time," Pereira said. "We have to evaluate, and we need to plan our attack in the way which is most efficient. It's that direction that we're seeking now. I don't have concrete measures, but I expect a total plan put together within the next 45 days."
Vincent Del Castillo, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said Pereira faces some tough times. Not only will the drug problem be hard to control, but so will forming a group of high-ranking officers loyal to him and his reforms.
Pereira already has publicly scolded factions within the department -- mostly identified with the island's two major political parties -- for their rush to curry his favor.
The turnaround formula
To boost morale, Pereira is considering having older, veteran officers retire to make way for new blood. A pay raise also would be good, Del Castillo said.
The associate-degree program has done much to improve their self-image and make officers feel better about their jobs.
But that doesn't shield some of them from succumbing to payoffs from drug dealers -- or other high-profile mistakes.
The department's image has taken a beating lately:
*More than 40 officers were caught on tape by federal investigators taking money to protect cocaine shipments, some even wearing their police uniforms and in their patrol cars.
*Pereira suspended two top-ranking colonels his second day on the job for lying to his predecessor about the number of weapons seized during a raid touted to the press last month.
*Seven officers are accused of police brutality for crashing a 1-year-old's birthday party, swinging nightsticks and hurting dozens of people. They face trial next month.
Pereira said he wants to fix this. But as a prosecutor working with police, Pereira said, he found most officers to be dedicated, honest, hard-working people.
"I'm not a naive person," he said. "I don't pretend to say that the police in Puerto Rico will avoid from now and forever these kinds of officers. But I am dedicated enough to know we will get to a spot in which this will be an extraordinary event."