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Puerto Rico Mourns

Here’s What We Can Do To Reduce Crime Now!


October 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Thousands of people took to the streets Sunday to share their grief and demand action from the Puerto Rico government in the wake of the recent hike in the crime rate.

For Police Superintendent Victor Rivera, it must all be a figment of their imagination.

"The reality is that Puerto Rico is turning into a less violent society," Rivera said. "If people buy the mistaken hypothesis that Puerto Rico is more violent than before, then they will feel insecure, depressed, and hounded."

Rivera and Miguel Pereira, his immediate predecessor in the top-cop post and now Corrections & Rehabilitation Department secretary, were about the only two people interviewed by CARIBBEAN BUSINESS who thought the crime situation in Puerto Rico was getting better.

As of Oct. 3, the number of murders on the island so far in 2003 stood at 593, 11 more than on the same date last year.

Still, Police Superintendent Victor Rivera insisted the island’s crime problem had more to do with people’s perception than with the real numbers.

Pereira agrees. He remains firm in his belief that the crime rate hasn’t increased in relation to the previous administration.

"I have no doubt that the crime statistics documented during the Rossello administration aren’t correct," said Pereira. "The cynicism shown [in presenting false crime statistics] made people feel secure. Now that the truth is out, people are upset about how safe they felt walking the streets of Puerto Rico when they truly weren’t. They were protected by God, luck, or statistical probability."

Pereira had said basically the same thing about the statistics kept by his predecessor, Pierre Vivoni, the first Police superintendent under the Calderon administration.

Rivera, the third police chief the current administration has had in less than three years, refused to accept that the island’s society is violent and said it compares favorably with any other industrialized society.

Although the Uniform Crime Report, a Federal Bureau of Investigation document compiling and comparing criminal activity in all the states, consistently ranks Puerto Rico in top positions in terms of crime, Rivera said the report isn’t a good resource.

"That isn’t a good measure for comparison because it is based on population vs. the number of killings, and no one has taken into consideration that overcrowding promotes violence," Rivera said.

He said the state of Arizona has about the same population as Puerto Rico, four million, but has less crime because of its larger size. Given the fact that the island won’t increase in size but certainly will in population, Rivera was asked what solution he proposes if overcrowding is the main reason for crime. Rivera didn’t give an answer but argued that there is hope.

Besides quarreling over statistics, for the obvious reason that they affect the political process, local law enforcement officials have been forced to come up with yet another quick-action plan to tackle the crime problem, both real and perceived. Rivera’s predecessors Pereira and Pierre Vivoni had come up with plans of their own, to no avail.

In September, a number of slayings in which innocent bystanders were killed by stray shots prompted widespread concern and forced police to draft a special crime-fighting plan.

Rivera argues that the special plan is working and statistics indicate that since its implementation there have been 11 fewer killings in San Juan and six fewer in Carolina than for the same period the year before.

Despite the plan’s apparent success, Rivera said that starting Oct. 13, it would undergo some changes to increase its cost-effectiveness. He said the plan cost $983,000 for one month, an amount much too high to pay on a regular basis.

The police superintendent said 12-hour patrol shifts would be provided by special elite forces from 4 p.m. Friday until 4 a.m. Monday. These are in addition to weekend roadblocks in the 13 police districts of the island and helicopter patrols over high-crime areas.

Rivera said police cadets would patrol in commercial centers and on foot in residential areas. Canine units will be used to detect firearms at and near pubs and clubs to ensure that those carrying weapons are licensed to do so.

And although he acknowledged that adding more police officers isn’t the answer to all the problems, Rivera noted that more patrolling of the streets has proved effective.

The police force is currently 19,500 strong, but that number will continue to increase as police academies graduate more officers.

In addition, the Police Department is purchasing more high-tech equipment for patrol cars, more equipment for investigators, and more vehicles for the United Forces for Rapid Action (FURA by its Spanish acronym).

Local DEA chief calls for local-federal cooperation

Federal law enforcement officials on the island had a more somber outlook on the current crime wave.

"The murder rate [estimated in Puerto Rico at 14 murders per 100,000 people] is four times higher than anywhere on the U.S. mainland," said Jerome Harris, special agent in charge of the Caribbean division at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

"It raises a red flag that we aren’t doing something right," he said. "Why aren’t we, as law enforcement professionals, reducing the murder rate in Puerto Rico? The reason is because there’s no focus, no plan, no effort to identify those particular groups or individuals committing crimes."

Harris said the reasons for crime are complex, and that complexity stems from the numerous social and economic difficulties that exist. "For some people, committing a crime is the easiest way to pursue the American dream," he said.

Harris believes that organizing a task force gathering the expertise of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Bureau of Customs & Border Protection, the DEA, local homicide detectives, and state & federal prosecutors could be part of a short-term strategy for removing criminals from Puerto Rico’s communities.

A long-term solution involves exploiting untapped resources and techniques. "There are federal resources that can be brought to bear, grants we can access with the local authorities," Harris said. "We just need to set up an intelligence-sharing program that is supported by basic Internet technology."

Some of the available resources include the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, Project Safe Neighborhoods, and the Weed & Seed program. These initiatives seek to combat drug trafficking, organized crime, gun violence, and gang activity.

"These programs require local authorities to work with federal law enforcement agencies," Harris said. "The municipality of Caguas is currently using the Weed & Seed program. That program involves a two-pronged approach. The first involves weeding out violent criminals and drug abusers from the target area. The second involves bringing in human services to the area.

"We have to get down to the basic component of intelligence strategy and extend that from the micro [local level] to the macro [regional level] to set up some infrastructure so we can analyze, identify, and address some of the problems. Until we do that, we are just spinning our wheels," said Harris.

Local authorities also need to rely on technology. "They have to catch up with modern-day law enforcement technology and techniques, including crime mapping," Harris said. Simple maps that display the places crimes have occurred can be used to direct police patrols where they are most needed.

"Crime is generally committed by a small group of individuals within a community; maybe 1% to 2% will perpetrate a high-crime spree in a particular area," Harris said. "When you identify those perpetrators, you’ll see a reduction in crime."

The local DEA chief, who also supervises operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, Curacao, and Trinidad & Tobago, believes Puerto Rico could follow the New York City Police Department’s model, designed by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"People will argue that Puerto Rico isn’t New York, but crime is crime," Harris said. "It goes back to accountability, setting a plan, sticking with it, and not fighting crime based on political pressures, which is what I’m seeing on the island."

According to DEA statistics, there have been 619 arrests in the Caribbean for fiscal year (FY) 2003, which runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, compared with 595 in FY 2002. The DEA’s Caribbean division seized 7,556 kilograms of cocaine, 147 kilos of heroin, 11,800 kilos of marijuana, and 51,500 units of steroids and ecstasy in FY 2003.

Changes in the law

"The crime wave in Puerto Rico is unstoppable, and the basic problem is the impotence of the local criminal justice system in Puerto Rico," said U.S. District Court Chief Judge Hector Laffitte.

Under the commonwealth constitution, bail is a right, not a privilege, as it is in the federal jurisdiction. "There’s no way for local judges to deny bail," Laffitte said

Laffitte recommends amending the local constitution to give local judges the discretion to deny bail, at least in cases of violent crimes such as drug possession with intent to distribute, rape, murder, kidnapping, burglary, and armed robbery.

Laffitte explained that it has been litigated and clearly decided by the federal courts that limiting or denying bail to a defendant doesn’t violate due process protections under the U.S. Constitution.

He said that after considerable study, Congress found too many defendants were committing crimes while free on bail, so it enacted the Bail Reform Act of 1985.

It also has been adjudicated by the courts that denying bail doesn’t go against the presumption of innocence. "That’s a presumption that arises at trial, but not during pretrial procedures," Lafitte said.

The police make the effort, but the criminals are out the next day. There has to be greater coordination between the police and the courts, said the judge.

Laffitte is critical, however, of the recent trend among some local judges to impose excessively high bail, warning that it might be unconstitutional. "You can’t circumvent a right by imposing a dollar amount that the accused can’t pay," he said. "It would be better to amend the constitution to clearly establish that bail is within the judge’s discretion."

The second thing Laffitte would do is change the local rule of criminal procedure that gives the accused a list of the witnesses against him, with their names and addresses.

"Why do you have so many witnesses killed in Puerto Rico? Because the accused have their names and addresses," Laffitte said. "This is the basic reason why it is so difficult for local prosecutors to find witnesses willing to testify.

"I once had a case where the defendant in a carjacking case executed an innocent man with several bullets to the head because he had been erroneously identified as a witness in the trial," he added.

Laffitte agreed it is somewhat disingenuous for those who oppose the federal death penalty because an innocent man might receive the punishment not to be concerned about putting innocent people at risk by giving defendants the names and addresses of witnesses against them. "The constitution shouldn’t be a suicide pact," he said.

In the federal system, no witnesses are identified except in capital cases and treason cases. It has also been adjudicated by the courts that such a practice doesn’t violate the defendant’s right to due process.

The third thing Laffitte recommends is for Puerto Rico to adopt the equivalent of the federal Sentence Reform Act of 1984, which he jokingly calls the "Truth in Sentencing Act."

According to the chief judge, federal guidelines help eliminate the disparities in sentencing that are sometimes seen in state court. It isn’t that federal sentences are stricter but that they are taken literally; there’s no room for interpretation.

"There’s nothing that frustrates the citizenry more than seeing criminals getting a 25-year sentence getting out in five," Laffitte said. "Under federal sentencing guidelines, the penalty imposed has to be served. The Sentence Reform Act did away with the parole board because the sentences are set, within guidelines for the judges’ discretion. But whatever the sentence the judge imposes, that’s it. If it’s a life sentence, you leave in a pine box."

Laffitte said there’s a direct correlation between the credibility of the system and the reduction of crime. When criminals know they will face a certain sentence, they are deterred from committing the crime. Laffitte noted that as soon as carjacking was classified as a federal crime with the possible penalty of death, the incidence of carjackings in Puerto Rico dropped by 66%.

He also stressed the importance of the investigative tools that federal law gives the U.S. district attorney but which are prohibited in Puerto Rico, such as wiretapping. "It is virtually impossible to indict and convict big drug-conspiracy cases without wiretapping," said Laffitte. "It is because federal prosecutors have these tools that you see large numbers of cases and a higher percentage of convictions in federal court than in state court."

Laffitte also thinks there are too many trial suspensions in the local jurisdiction. "In the presentencing reports, I’m often amazed at the number of defendants who had several cases filed away in the state jurisdiction," he said.

Laffitte believes the local government should consider some sort of voluntary birth-control program to assist young women, particularly those in drug-infested areas such as housing projects.

"The other day I sentenced a woman in a drug case. She was 25 with four kids. She’s going to prison for five years," he said. "What’s going to become of those four kids? Who’s going to take care of them? What sort of environment are they going to grow up in?"

Laffitte also advocates more cooperation between the federal and state law-enforcement systems, to avoid turf wars.

He calls for reforming the prison system to give criminals a genuine opportunity at rehabilitation. More emphasis on vocational training and greater control of the prison by the corrections administrator are essential. The judge believes we should think about bringing back some old-fashioned practices, like using minimum-security inmates for gardening and cleaning public spaces.

According to Laffitte, the single most important function of a government is to ensure the safety of its citizens. "In fact," he said, "that’s the prime reason for any people to constitute into a state, to provide for security."

Laffitte believes any solution to the crime problem must have medium- and long-term objectives, but the above initiatives should be undertaken immediately.

"I am deeply concerned about what is going to happen in Puerto Rico unless we adopt these measures. Not someday, but now, and without ¡ay, bendito!" said Laffitte.

CB Associate Editor Marialba Martinez contributed to this story.

Type I Crimes in Puerto Rico

1992 to 2002

Year: Total Crimes / Murders / Rapes / Robberies / Aggravated Assaults / Burglaries / Thefts/ Auto Thefts

2002: 90,783 / 774 / 241 / 8,978 / 3,478 / 24,737 / 39,640 / 12,935

2001: 70,117 / 744 / 187 / 7,999 / 2,473 / 19,931 / 26,140 / 12,643

2000: 75,379 / 695 / 228 / 8,757 / 2,726 / 21,057 / 28,940 / 12,976

1999: 81,880 / 593 / 223 / 9,827 / 3,563 / 23,033 / 30,206 / 14,435

1998: 87,020 / 652 / 243 / 11,448 / 4,096 / 24,512 / 30,493 / 15,576

1997: 94,876 / 724 / 278 / 13,642 / 4,952 / 26,942 / 32,715 / 15,623

1996: 99,788 / 868 / 316 / 13,900 / 5,063 / 27,866 / 35,652 / 16,123

1995: 106,088 / 864 / 324 / 15,753 / 5,509 / 27,689 / 39,960 / 15,989

1994: 116,263 / 995 / 396 / 17,625 / 6,384 / 31,160 / 42,062 / 17,641

1993: 121,035 / 954 / 401 / 18,181 / 6,806 / 33,636 / 43,468 / 17,589

1992: 128,874 / 864 / 433 / 24,242 / 6,747 / 35,415 / 42,315 / 18,858

All are preliminary figures.

Source: P.R. Police Department

FBI’s Patrick Daly: Fighting crime is a continuing effort


For Patrick Daly, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Puerto Rico since October, task forces joining federal and local law enforcement on the island have had a major impact in the past two decades.

"We didn’t have task forces in the ’80s, when I was a regular agent here. The FBI had 63 agents back then, and I thought that wasn’t the best way of going about law enforcement" Daly told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. "Now, we have almost 170 agents and task forces in the violent crimes and terrorism areas. The Puerto Rico Police has certainly been a full member of our task forces, especially in gangs and drugs," said Daly of the joint federal-local work groups set up during the 90s.

One of the most effective task forces, according to Daly, has been the HIDTA, or High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The Office of National Drug Control Policy designated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) an HIDTA in 1994.

"HIDTA is a well-run program here," said Daly. "That’s why it [the Puerto Rico & USVI area] received the award for the nation’s best HIDTA last year."

HIDTA encompasses federal agencies such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Bureau of Customs & Border Protection, as well as local law enforcement agencies such as the Puerto Rico Police Department.

The Puerto Rico-USVI HIDTA investigates high-value, sophisticated drug-trafficking organizations and their associated criminal operations within its area of responsibility to reduce drug availability in local markets, dismantle or disrupt organized crime, and reduce the use of Caribbean islands to enter the stateside drug market.

In Daly’s opinion, most of the violent crimes are directly related to drug activity. "The FBI and HIDTA are working with gangs and drug-trafficking organizations with our own personnel as well as the task personnel," said Daly. "Our target and HIDTA’s is the top people: importers and the heads of gangs and of drug-trafficking organizations. We are having success arresting these people, but fighting crime is an ongoing thing."

Drugs, said Daly, are such a moneymaking proposition for criminals that as soon as you put a dealer in jail, there’s another one to take his place. One way to disrupt this vicious cycle, he added, is by raising awareness and improving the economy.

"Managing crime requires a multifaceted approach. You can do it through prevention and law enforcement, as we do with other agencies such as the police, the DEA, and other federal agencies," he said. "But there’s also a societal function. People mustn’t want to become drug traffickers because it’s profitable. Get a good education and a job. [These types of campaigns] take time."

In light of the rash of murders, most associated with drug wars between gangs, Daly said federal law enforcement agencies have met with Police Superintendent Victor Rivera to try to come up with a strategy to reduce crime. He noted the relationship between federal and local law enforcement agencies is much better than what it was when he last worked in Puerto Rico in the ‘80s.

When Daly was in charge of violent crimes in Chicago in 1994, the city experienced a record number of murders related to gang activity. The FBI and other federal agencies made a concerted effort, working from the top down, to curb drug trafficking and other gang activity.

"I think that’s what the police superintendent is doing right now. You see police trying to dismantle drug points and putting more police on the streets by canceling vacations, having officers work overtime, getting recent academy graduates on the streets, and concentrating the police force in high-crime areas," said Daly. "I think the police are doing the best they can."

Gov. Sila Calderon, said Daly, has made a commitment to providing the Police Department with the resources it needs, not only in terms of funding but also in terms of equipment.

"The governor has made the commitment and the government is now trying to allocate the money for equipment and training," said Daly. "I think that would be a positive step to reducing crime."

Although the FBI’s priorities have shifted since 9/11, with preventing terrorism now topping the list, Daly said he remains committed to fighting violent crimes and drug trafficking in Puerto Rico. He has asked FBI headquarters to keep the local office fully staffed and to step up efforts to get more Spanish-speaking agents in Puerto Rico.

9/11 forces FBI to shift priorities


As the primary investigative arm of the federal government, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is responsible for enforcing more than 260 federal statutes and conducting national security investigations.

The FBI investigates organized crime; white-collar crime; public corruption; financial crime; fraud against the government; bribery; copyright matters; civil rights violations; bank robbery; extortion; kidnapping; air piracy; terrorism; foreign counterintelligence; interstate crime, fugitive, and drug-trafficking matters; and other violations of federal statutes.

The FBI works with other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in investigating matters of joint interest and in training law enforcement officers from around the world.

One week before 9/11, Robert Mueller III became the sixth director of the FBI. Little did he know then that he would spearhead perhaps the most extensive reorganization of the FBI since its establishment in 1908. In May 2002, Mueller articulated the FBI’s top 10 priorities (see chart).

"While we remain committed to our other important national security and law enforcement responsibilities, the prevention of terrorism takes precedence in our thinking and planning, in our hiring and staffing, in our training and technologies, and most importantly, in our investigations," Mueller said.

FBI’s Top 10 Priorities

  • Protect the U.S. from terrorist attack;
  • Protect the U.S. against foreign intelligence operations and espionage;
  • Protect the U.S. against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes;
  • Combat public corruption at all levels;
  • Protect civil rights;
  • Combat transnational and national criminal organizations and enterprises;
  • Combat major white-collar crime;
  • Combat significant violent crime;
  • Support federal, state, local, and international partners; and
  • Upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI’s mission.

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Contributing factors abound as island battles decades of crime


An important question must be asked regarding Puerto Rico’s elevated crime rate. Is this a recent crime wave or are we simply fed up with a problem that has plagued the island for decades?

"This isn’t a new problem for Puerto Rico," said Marlene Hunter, federal security director in charge of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) local operations. "The recent emphasis on crime should be seen as a study of what Puerto Rico has endured over the past 20 years. The difference is that now we can single out several contributing factors."

Hunter, a 24-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and, until October 2002, the FBI special agent in charge in Puerto Rico, has seen her share of crime and corruption. She told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that politicizing the issue is only adding fuel to the fire.

"It’s a minefield here; it’s difficult to find solutions when an issue like crime becomes political," said Hunter. "A politician with no prior law enforcement experience is just another person spouting off on the issue.

"Ultimately, politicians will always be involved in the issue of crime in order to seek re-election," she added. "But if you really want to analyze and solve the crime problem, you must speak to the experts. Today, policing is a science."

Hunter is certainly qualified to offer her opinion on Puerto Rico’s crime problem. In 2001, she was head of the FBI’s San Juan division, which completed the largest probe into police corruption in FBI history. It resulted in the arrest of 29 local police officers and of another 40 from three subsequent investigations.

Although Hunter has shifted gears from investigating crime to ensuring homeland security, she said an analysis of Puerto Rico’s crime problem requires examining the big picture.

"We have to look at the issue historically and not take it a month, day, or week at a time," said Hunter. "Going on the notion that crime may have peaked this year isn’t the answer either. Take a look at years past and study the trends."

Trends in any industry are systematic studies whose ideal worth is to identify both the positive and negative of any given issue. Law enforcement is no different, and until the positive outweighs the negative, Puerto Rico’s plans for crime prevention will remain stagnant.

"The public in Puerto Rico wants and expects an end-all solution to what it perceives as a recent hike in crime," said Hunter. "Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Everyone must understand that there aren’t unlimited dollars or human resources to fight crime. When you have a budget, you hire, train, and equip your personnel according to that budget. It’s a realistic factor that we should take into consideration."

Although law enforcement agencies suffer limitations in terms of budget at the local, state, and federal levels, the initiative and responsibility remain on their shoulders. Hunter said that law enforcement officials must prioritize cases and attack them accordingly.

She used the example of having taken down street gangs one by one, among them that of Wes Solano, who in the early ’90s was the head of one of Puerto Rico’s most extensive and most violent drug organizations. Drugs are perhaps the biggest contributors to crime on the island.

"After taking down a street gang, you can’t drop the ball and pursue the next gang," said Hunter. "Law enforcement officials must guarantee testimony and, above all, protect their witnesses. Extreme measures must be taken to protect those who come forward. If you don’t have the budget to protect your witnesses, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone willing to come forward."

Solving crime in Puerto Rico will no doubt come down to a coordinated effort by federal, state, and municipal task forces. After 9/11, law enforcement at every level shifted to prevention. At the local level, Hunter, who joined the FBI after teaching high-school mathematics for several years, believes education will determine the future of a sustainable approach to crime.

"Education is key, and it allows people to believe in themselves," said Hunter. "Public schools must get better and salaries must improve. It’s a sad state of affairs when we realize that federal prison and life without parole is a better life for a 15-year-old convicted murderer."

Penal Code project proposes updating system, eliminating flaws; Senate approved Bill 2302 in June; still under evaluation in lower chamber


After 28 years of social and economic transformation, more than 200 amendments, duplicity of crimes, and disproportionate penalties, the 1974 Penal Code is about to be repealed. The Senate approved Bill 2302 to adopt a new Penal Code of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

According to the Senate, even though the 1974 Penal Code improved the 1902 Code—a verbatim translation of the California Penal Code—it failed to clearly define crimes, left out certain penalties, and kept several dispositions from the California Code that interfered with Puerto Rico’s judicial tradition.

The new code articulates which violations constitute an offense and their corresponding sentences using precise, consistent language to remove any doubts and conflicts of interpretation.

In the bill’s Exposition of Motives, the Senate pointed out flaws in the sentencing procedures and in other areas of the Penal Code. In 1974, the Penal Code adopted the undetermined sentencing model, in which a judge imposes a sentence between the minimum and maximum time and the convict is considered for parole after serving the minimum time.

In 1980, the determined sentencing system was implemented. This method allows a judge to impose a punishment of a fixed term and the convict to qualify for parole after serving half the sentence. According to the Senate, there remain today determined and undetermined penalties in both the Civil Code and special legislation.

The new Penal Code mandates that a convict serve the entire term imposed by the court. The code also allows the Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation to certify that prisoners have been rehabilitated and are eligible to be reintegrated into the community.

Regarding the more than 200 amendments to the Penal Code, the Senate feels they have been approved hastily and thus conflict with other areas of the code and with complementary legislation.

Other issues involve the fast classification of new crimes, which has led to duplicity of crimes inconsistently applied and disproportionate punishments; monetary penalties that don’t correspond to today’s monetary values; and favorable treatment and impunity toward those who engage in white-collar crime.

The Legislature said all these factors led it to revise the Penal Code; soon it will also modify complementary legislation. Advised by a group of local and foreign experts and scholars, the Senate compiled several technical reports that served as a framework for the new code.

The project is now in the House of Representatives Judicial Committee, chaired by Rep. Carlos Hernandez and directed by attorney Mario Pabon. A committee officer said it is evaluating dates for public hearings and to receive written testimony. The committee then must draft a report and present it to its members for adoption or for changes. Once cleared by the committee, the project goes to a plenary session for final approval or repeal.

Corrections & Rehabilitation Department Secretary Miguel A. Pereira


With seven of every 10 inmates returning to prison after their first offense, Miguel A. Pereira, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, stresses that the agency’s primary purpose is to hold inmates accountable for their legal transgressions. Its second purpose is to encourage inmates’ positive behavior through rehabilitation.

Gov. Sila Calderon named Pereira executive director of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority in March 2001. Designated Police Department superintendent in November 2001, he was forced to switch posts with Corrections Secretary Victor Rivera in November 2002. A 20-year federal prosecutor with ample experience in the military, Pereira’s year at the Police Department was spent trying to implement aggressive accountability standards to increase the number of cases solved. Puerto Rico’s crime-solving rate is less than 40%, compared with New York’s 80% or more.

Paraphrasing the title of Hillary Clinton’s book, Pereira says it doesn’t just take a village to fight crime; it takes the entire system.

"Fighting crime requires a joint effort with not only the community at large but with state agencies such as Housing, Family, Education, Health, Youth, Labor, Public Service, and Recreation & Sports," said Pereira, reading from the work plan he had proposed for the Police Department.

"We must also include agencies that work with municipalities, community-based organizations, and federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Bureau of Customs & Border Protection."

According to Pereira, the crime rate has nothing to do with the size of the police force. Crime rates measure social behavior, and part of the rise in crime comes from an increase in the population.

"I believe the government has to tackle crime aggressively," said Pereira. "Crime is a complex problem and we, as a society, have to accept our responsibility for not facing and dealing with the problem adequately. This means solving more cases; following national standards of reporting; evaluating how efficient other security agencies have been at reducing traffic accidents; and concentrating on programs to stimulate citizens’ participation, particularly those for children and the elderly."

The recent decision to shut down the infamous Oso Blanco Correction Center (built in 1928 and obsolete in terms of security and infrastructure since the 1950s) demonstrates the need to improve Puerto Rico’s prison system. Since the 1980s, Oso Blanco has cost $20 million in improvements to the plumbing, electricity, and sanitary infrastructure.

The same thing happens at some of the oldest of the 51 correctional facilities around the island.

The local government has also paid millions of dollars in federal court-imposed fines because of overcrowding (the Morales Feliciano case). Given that the judicial system demands 50 square feet per inmate, Oso Blanco should house only some 500 prisoners, though it has routinely held more than 1,000.

"There are architects that specialize in the design of prisons," said Pereira. "In the past, colleagues and political contributors in Puerto Rico were offered contracts to design prisons with the result that what we have today are basically hotels with steel bars.

"A prison’s design alone should control 95% of the prison population, with the remaining 5% of the security left to prison guards and special equipment," added Pereira. "In Puerto Rico, prisons are designed to be run by security guards, when what is needed is a design with a particular wall or obstruction, or the lack of one, in the right place."

The Corrections & Rehabilitation Department is working on a new prison in Ponce’s Guerrero sector designed by local architect Jimmy Gaztambide, who is certified by the American Corrections Association. This is a first step to cutting back on the 7,000 prison guards who supervise an average of 15,000 inmates.

"We have a large absenteeism problem among prison guards that affects the prison system’s daily routine," said Pereira. "There is a study under way to let go of the 50 prison guards with the most absences. I will deal with the unions if need be. But when a guard doesn’t show up, prisoners’ security is put at risk, which affects inmates’ rehabilitation."

Solicitor General Pedro Geronimo Goyco


"Most of the murders that will take place in Puerto Rico 15 years from now will be committed by babies born today."

Puerto Rico Solicitor General Pedro Geronimo Goyco’s statement dramatizes that prevention is the way to solve the crime problem in the long term.

Right now, though, the local government’s top prosecutor has the tough job of putting criminals behind bars. When asked what he wishes for to help him do his job, Goyco responds: the most seasoned and best-trained corps of prosecutors and greater cooperation from the citizenry during criminal investigations.

"This can’t be approached as a problem that is exclusively the responsibility of the government," said Goyco. "People often react only when crime touches them closely. But crime is a problem that touches all of us. So, we shouldn’t forget the citizenry’s responsibility to cooperate with the authorities."

How can the authorities obtain information about a crime or a possible crime unless people are willing to bear witness and provide information? "If you aren’t willing to give information about a crime that you know has been committed or is about to be committed, how can you complain when a crime committed against you or your family goes unsolved?" asked Goyco.

"Here in Puerto Rico, there is the mistaken notion that people who become witnesses are at risk of physical harm," he said. "That has happened, but it is rare." He noted the local Department of Justice (DOJ) has a witness-protection program.

Goyco believes the most important thing we can do to fight crime is to have the most experienced and best-trained prosecutors. "Choosing prosecutors well and maintaining the quality of their training is paramount," he said. "There was a time recently when a number of good prosecutors weren’t renominated and the whole department suffered."

According to Goyco, the effectiveness of the prosecutors is reflected in the number of plea bargains. As prosecutors investigate and prepare more solid cases against the accused, the latter realize their chances of prevailing before a jury is smaller and therefore are forced to bargain a guilty plea.

A plea bargain is a process in which the prosecutor and the defendant’s lawyer negotiate a lower criminal charge or sentence in exchange for a defendant’s declaration, or plea, of guilt to that charge. As the defendant pleas guilty, the trial is avoided.

"I’ve seen a marked increase in plea bargains," Goyco said. "Today, it’s about 90%. That means only 10% of all criminal cases in Puerto Rico make it to trial."

Goyco noted that when you have more experienced prosecutors, the number of plea bargains rises. "People should know that plea bargains aren’t capricious or arbitrary," he said. "The state is the representative of the people and we have to be sensitive to the victims."

Goyco was coy when asked whether he would like the investigative tools that his federal counterpart, the U.S. district attorney, has at his disposal, such as wiretapping and the possibility of locking up a criminal defendant without bail.

"I have no problem with the constitutional limitations within which I operate," said Goyco. "That doesn’t mean we couldn’t improve." For example, he would like to see more personnel to prevent bail and parole violations by defendants and convicted criminals.

"I have no problem with the constitutional prohibition on wiretapping, though I have to admit that it would make it easier for me," said Goyco. "If the people, in their assessment of their priorities as a society, would rather not budge on that constitutional protection, I am all right with that, so long as I have the cooperation of the citizenry."

Goyco said he also has no issue with the sentences being imposed by Puerto Rico judges. "The plea-bargaining agreements have a sentencing recommendation, which judges follow most of the time," he said. "Plus, in Puerto Rico the sentences are pretty much set."

Goyco would like more police resources dedicated to criminal investigations and enough prisons to hold criminals.

He values the experience of his prosecutors but insists on constant training. "I have no doubt that every person involved in the criminal justice system has tackled the [crime] problem with the very best of intentions," he said. "But we have to recognize that the problem has gotten more complicated.

"The way crime is committed today isn’t the way it was committed 10 or 15 years ago," added Goyco. "Technology has helped criminals. So, every day it becomes more difficult. It requires constant training on new ways of committing crime and the best investigation techniques for prosecuting the cases."

As criminals have become more sophisticated, so has the government agency in charge of investigating them and putting them away. Through the years, the local DOJ has created specialized units. The Economic Crimes Division, for example, deals with fraud, money laundering, identity theft, and similar crimes. The Public Integrity Division investigates and prosecutes cases of government corruption and undertakes investigations that are forwarded to the Independent Prosecutors Panel upon referral by the secretary.

Secretary of Justice Annabelle Rodriguez ordered the creation of an Institute for Training & Development of Legal Thought to offer training to incoming prosecutors so they can hit the ground running. It will also provide continuing education to all DOJ attorneys, especially prosecutors, on the latest technologies, crimes, investigative techniques, and more.

Goyco would also like to see more emphasis placed on prevention. "We have to give our children a different vision of what life is and what it can be, that the drug pusher who flaunts material possessions as a result of his criminal activity isn’t someone to emulate," he said. "If we can keep many of the babies born today from turning into criminals, we’ll have fewer crimes in the next 15 years."

Editor’s note: Despite repeated calls to his office, U.S. District Attorney Humbert Garcia refused to be interviewed or provide any information for this story.

Type I Crimes in Puerto Rico

2003 vs. 2002 (Jan. 1 to Oct. 2)

Year / Total Crimes/ Murders / Rapes / Robberies / Aggravated Assaults / Burglaries / Thefts / Auto Thefts

2003: 62,496 / 592 / 148 / 5,978 / 2,144 / 15,839 / 28,430 / 9,365

2002: 70,074 / 582 / 182 / 7,094 / 2,477 / 19,095 / 30,637 / 10,007

Total crimes change 2003 vs. 2002 = -10.8%

All are preliminary figures.

Source: P.R. Police Department

Central government needs to cooperate more with police


For former Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo, crime is the result of a lack of ethical and moral values, poor education, and an alarming increase in mental health problems. Accordingly, he believes dealing with crime shouldn’t be based solely on law enforcement.

"The central government needs to support police efforts, not only by giving them much-needed economic resources but also by establishing as public policy joint efforts between the police and other agencies such as the Education, Health, and Family departments," Toledo said.

He noted the recent increase in violence in the island’s public schools is an alarming sign that more youth are committing crimes.

"Respect for institutions and for authority figures is being lost. That can only be recovered through a joint educational campaign between families, teachers, students, and doctors," Toledo said.

He declined to describe Puerto Rico as a violent society but acknowledged that crime continues to be a top concern for local citizens.

"Yes, there is crime in Puerto Rico, no one can deny that, but when you look at other jurisdictions and other societies, you find more violent environments," Toledo said. "For example, on any given weekend in Caracas [Venezuela] there are between 100 and 200 killings, and most of them are the result of armed robberies. Of course, many more millions of people live there, but that is an example of a more violent society."

Remembered as one of the best police superintendents the island has ever had, and named the 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS Person of the Year, Public Sector, Toledo met with CB / PuertoRicoWOW News on Saturday morning to discuss the tools he believes are needed to reduced crime, "tools that not only can be purchased but that need to be taught and enforced," he said.

Toledo said the police force works well only when it is motivated. That means police agents need not only a good salary but also a solid education, good training, and the right equipment.

He expressed concern about the current administration’s decision to reduce police academy training by 66% from nine months to 14 weeks. He believes all officers should have at least an associate degree in criminal justice.

"There is no reason an agent shouldn’t be trained to investigate and solve a misdemeanor, but that is something that needs to be learned in an academy," Toledo said. He noted that under his tenure, a pilot program was established in San Juan whereby agents were trained and given kits to collect evidence such as fingerprints in cases of robbery, breaking & entering, and other crimes. He said the program worked well, but it no longer exists.

The former chief of police also expressed concern about police academies with more than 1,000 cadets. Classes that large are the result of a less rigorous screening process, he said.

Toledo added that police need the right equipment for the job, including more patrol cars, cameras in all patrol cars, and a global positioning system (GPS) by which the central command can track every patrol car.

"That [GPS] not only helps us know where everyone is in an emergency, but also helps us identify who is doing his or her job and who isn’t," Toledo said.

Toledo said the Police Department must address the issue of drug trafficking, but it also must show concern about the trafficking of illegal firearms.

Citizens demand to be informed of measures taken to fight crime


WOW News editor

Organizers of Sunday’s march in favor of life said elected officials and heads of government agencies should be held accountable for the failed measures against crime.

"The people of Puerto Rico should be informed of the specific measures that will be implemented to fight crime with the corresponding funds assigned by the elected officials," Eladio Santos said.

Santos, who heads a solutions committee, will be in charge of organizing meetings around the island where citizens can express their concerns about and provide recommendations for combating crime. The recommendations will be evaluated and forwarded to the proper authorities.

Santos said one of the reasons why the fight against crime has failed to achieve better results might be because government officials have failed to consider citizens’ recommendations.

"A direct dialog, without limitations of time or space, between the citizens, elected officials, government agency heads, and all sectors of our society should be established in order to prepare an action plan with no political agenda to which we are all committed," Santos said.

He acknowledged, however, that citizens must accept their responsibility and cooperate with the authorities.

Santos was appointed to head the special committee by march organizer Nestor Muñiz, whose daughter Nicole, 16, died after being struck by a stray bullet while driving past a public housing project in Guaynabo.

The march was attended by thousands of people who have been affected by crime. Many families wore T-shirts bearing the photo of a relative that had been the victim of crime.

Most of the families interviewed by WOW News seemed to have the same concern: that justice be served.

Many argued that even when a prime suspect had been identified in their case, no charges were ever brought. Others expressed rage at the Police Department’s failure to conduct a proper investigation.

Such was the case of Wanda Soto, who said that everybody in Añasco knows who killed her nephew Carlos Bessou Soso, yet no charges have been filed. "That killer is on the street," she said, "and another innocent person could be killed by him."

In a recent interview with WOW News, Police Superintendent Victor Rivera said he is pleased with the way investigations are being conducted and is proud that nearly 35% of crimes have been solved.


How would you describe the current situation of crime in Puerto Rico compared with 2 years ago?

Much worse 68.77%

Somewhat worse 13.04%

About the same 10.67%

Much better 5.14%

Somewhat better 2.37%

PuertoRicoWOW poll results for the two-week period ended Sept. 26, 2003; a total of 253 people voted.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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