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Robbery Hits Home, Rivera González Hits Floor


June 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Three shots were fired, but no one was hurt. The robber nabbed about $5,000 from the restaurant cash register before getting away.

Fairly small potatoes in Puerto Rico's crime world. Few would have even found out about it.

Except that police Superintendent Víctor Rivera González himself was hugging the floor. His armed escort outside didn't realize what was happening until it was too late.

"Everything was very fast," Rivera told the media, which reveled in the irony of the situation. "I didn't feel frightened because I didn't have time to."

The incident that witnesses say didn't even take two minutes not only hit home with Puerto Ricans who feel besieged by criminals, many times fueled by the island's persistent drug trade; it also illustrated for many how impotent police sometimes seem to be against crime, even when it's staring them in the face.

Rivera had just had appetizers with leaders of the police auxiliary force at the Metropol Restaurant near San Juan's financial district when the robber sneaked in the back door at 7:50 p.m. as an employee was taking out the trash.

He shot at the ceiling twice, hit cashier Roberto Somoza with the butt of the gun, took the cash and ran back out the way he came in. Just before heading out the door, he shot one more time toward the main entrance, shattering the windshield of a car parked out front.

One of the auxiliary police officers having dinner with Rivera and who was also on the floor made a gesture to draw his gun. But Rivera said he motioned for him to stay still to avoid a shootout in the popular restaurant. The superintendent's armed escort ran in, and some of the 35 or so diners pointed to the back door.

In a flash, the robber was gone, probably jumping into a waiting getaway car.

Still fresh from the scare, a reinvigorated Rivera was forced to talk about it the next day. He had to spend part of a previously scheduled news conference explaining the embarrassing incident instead of talking about new ways to track stolen cars.

"We have to keep fighting crime, above all with even more resolve, and try to gain the help of our citizens to do so," Rivera implored to the television cameras. "We can't be cowered by fear or by this handful or wave of delinquents we have in this country."

The holdup happened just two days after Rivera made a joint announcement with Gov. Sila Calderón that police had eliminated 500 "drug points" this year and would wipe out 350 more by year's end. The island's role as springboard for drugs from South America entering the United States fuels much of Puerto Rico's crime, including its extremely high murder rate.

But overall crimes against people, including murder, robbery, rape and aggravated assault, are down 21.5 percent, Calderón said, while property crimes such as burglary, car theft and others dipped by 9.8 percent. That's about 3,650 crimes less than in the first five months of last year. With Rivera sitting by her side, the governor said she wants to get that figure to 6,000 by New Year's Eve.

"I said it during my message [recently] when I announced I would not run for re-election," Calderón said. "I want to double efforts in the fight against crime and drugs. This meeting followed a weekend meeting in which police officers had to see how to make island streets safer."

In a severely underpaid, ill-equipped and understaffed department, the government is now playing catch-up by doing basic things, including buying 2,700 more patrol cars and upgrading some investigative equipment to help them clear more cases. About 1,200 new police officers will hit the streets by 2004 and an additional 1,000 auxiliary officers would also join the force to patrol shopping centers and smaller communities and handle police stations.

Calderón is pushing for more of the new auxiliary officers to take over duties in offices and police stations to free cops to do other kinds of police work.

"I want police officers on the street," Calderón said. "I don't want them doing administrative work."

Sometimes that doesn't help much either. Rivera himself would soon see that, right after the appetizers.

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