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Orlando Sentinel

Girl's Death Spurs Government To Address Tide Of Violence

Iván Román

August 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The 16-year-old high-school honors student was on her way back from her boyfriend's house Aug. 19 when the stray shot sliced into her left side and made her lose control of her car.

The shot that killed Nicole Muñiz Martínez apparently came from a sniper protecting some drug turf in San Juan's Villa Esperanza public-housing project. On the heels of some excessively bloody weekends, Nicole's senseless death was a wake-up call on an island where people are numb to constant news of killings -- mostly linked to drug trafficking -- or to stay sane, are forced to tune it out.

Of course, no one spoke up and the police didn't find a suspect. Few expected them to, and that's part of the problem.

"We're the only people where these things happen and we continue to not do anything about it," Nicole's father, Néstor Muñiz, said at her funeral, adding to the indignation he is expressing on the Internet, urging people to protest. "When the people get together, this is going to end."

Gov. Sila Calderón heeded his call and held an emergency Cabinet meeting Tuesday to find ways to reduce the bloodshed. Her people are putting together a summit of sorts with all sectors of society at the Governor's Mansion to deal with the crisis.

The Muñiz tragedy was just the last straw. A few days before, three people were killed and five wounded in a shootout at a nightclub. The daughter of well-known salsa singer Sammy Marrero was among those lying in a pool of blood.

The next day, he sang "La Cuna Blanca" (The White Crib) in her honor, a salsa classic that evokes the supposed joy over an innocent child's death, rooted in tradition, for his/her journey straight to Heaven with the angels. No one dare cry, let us all laugh in silence, the chorus says.

As of Friday morning, 510 people had been slain islandwide in 2003, 14 more than those killed in the same period last year. In 2002, 774 people were killed.

"The culture of violence is a culture that's decades old," said Education Secretary César Rey, after the emergency Cabinet meeting. "The solutions should not only come from the government, but from all of society."

Puerto Rico should aspire to a "culture of peace," he said, which is why they've set up programs that have reduced violence in schools by 16 percent, increased recreational activities in public-housing projects, and hired hundreds of social workers to intervene and prevent child abuse. Some 60 percent of students are now in after-school programs to shield them from drugs and other perils on the streets.

"There are social projects that in the long run should be an answer to ending this wave of violence, which has its cycles, and apparently we're now in one of them," Rey said.

But the government also has been trying to set the record straight.

Police Superintendent Víctor Rivera said the perception fed by constant media reports is not the reality of random and wanton crime that 10 or 15 years ago fueled large migrations of Puerto Ricans to stateside cities such as Orlando.

Homicides are up this year, but violent crime is down 17 percent and overall crime is down 10.4 percent. Some of the bloodiest massacres on the streets are unusual, isolated cases, Rivera said, and most killings are fueled by increased competition among gangs feeling the pinch from harsh police crackdowns on drug trafficking.

The victims in some 80 percent of homicides are tied to drug trafficking, a fact the press reminded Rivera should not be an excuse not to try as hard to prevent the bloodshed and solve those crimes.

"From 1989 through 1998, the annual murder rate varied between 800, 900 and 1,030 [people]," he said. "In 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, the rate of murders -- while dreadful because any death is a shame -- never reached 800 in a given year."

But "summit" talks aside, Rivera laid out plans for the short term. Almost two dozen of the dance clubs operating illegally were shut down last weekend, more public-housing projects will be targeted for temporary crackdowns and sweeps, and helicopters will fly more frequently over high-crime areas and drug points to check for snipers.

That doesn't impress others who think the government has dropped the ball on drug treatment and access to mental-health services, which authorities concede are a mess. They hope the "summit" addresses the root causes of crime -- everything from poverty to the underground economy that breeds inequality and corruption.

Tough discussions lie ahead. But what brings them all to the table is the simple, yet complicated, request that Nicole Muñiz prophetically wrote days before her death in an essay for her English class, read by Monsignor Roberto González Nieves, archbishop of San Juan, at a Mass in her memory Tuesday.

"I only wish that the violence comes to an end, not only so I can be happy, so everybody can be happy."

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