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In Puerto Rico, A Focus On Violence
Teen's Slaying May Fulfill Her Wish To Make A Difference
By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer
September 22, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Nicole Muñiz Martínez dreamed of seeing an end to the violence that had plagued her community.
"I want to make a difference in this life, a positive difference," the college-bound honors student wrote last summer, at the outset of her junior year at the Academia San José. "I want to make a difference in the lives of the majority of people. I know that it is too much that I ask, but I know that I can do it "
In a way that she would not have imagined, Nicole may now be making that difference.
Driving past San Juan's Villa Esperanza public-housing project one night last month, the 16-year-old was struck in the side by a stray bullet, apparently fired by a sniper protecting drug turf. Her car hurtled into a bridge abutment.
She was just one of 572 people killed in this U.S. commonwealth of 4 million since Jan. 1. Days earlier, three were killed and five were wounded in a shootout at a Bayamón nightclub. Days later, three were killed and one was wounded in a broad-daylight drive-by shooting outside the Santa Rosa Mall.
But it is Nicole's bright eyes and broad smile that have dominated newspapers and television here for the past month, her lost future that has come to symbolize the human cost of the violence, her death that has inspired an island-wide discussion of the causes of crime -- and sparked a round of anticrime proposals ranging from expanding after-school programs to calling in the National Guard.
"We have much to do," Gov. Sila Calderón said.
The 572 people killed this year through Thursday was 26 more than the number slain during the same period last year. In 2002, 774 were killed.
Officials blame 80 percent of homicides on the island drug trade. Hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine and heroin pass through Puerto Rico annually on the way from South America to the mainland United States. Competition for the trade has helped to push the murder rate to three times the U.S. average, with more homicides per capita than any state.
Calderón blamed the recent spate of violence on a police crackdown on puntos, drug-selling points, where she said constant raids have left dealers battling for control of ever-scarcer turf.
Puerto Rico police Superintendent Víctor Rivera González says sensational media reports have fueled a false public impression of random violence on the island. According to police statistics, overall crimes against persons -- homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- have fallen more than 14 percent this year.
But with homicides alone up nearly 5 percent, Rivera also has led a crackdown on unlicensed nightclubs, targeted more puntos for raids and stepped up helicopter patrols over San Juan to better spot rooftop snipers employed by drug gangs.
Calderón has sought tougher weapons laws and called a committee of island leaders to explore further measures.
Traditional values decline
Critics say it is not enough.
Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, seeking his party's nomination for a third term as the island's chief executive, has promised to bring back his controversial mano dura -- strong hand -- approach of the 1990s, when he ordered National Guard troops to retake public-housing projects from drug gangs.
Crime fell after the raids, but residents complained of rights abuses. This time, Rosselló says, he would also extend a mano amiga -- a friendly hand -- of education and mental-health programs to those who might otherwise become involved in crime.
Others are calling for a broader discussion of the causes of violence and more-comprehensive measures to address them.
"Assigning more policemen, calling the National Guard into action is just taking care of the symptoms," said the Rev. Wilfredo Estrada Adorno, general secretary of the Puerto Rican Bible Society. "It makes society more punitive to certain members of society, but it doesn't deal with the real problems."
Estrada sees a decline in traditional values: the breakup of the family, a lack of respect among neighbors, the declining influence of schools, the popular lure of easy money and power, paternalism and corruption in government, and "verbal violence" among politicians.
"The models that we need in adult society have collapsed," he said. "We really need to stop and look at ourselves and try to have a process of reconciliation and begin to work together even though we have different ideas, religiously, politically."
17th birthday march
Nestor Muñiz is trying to get that process started.
Nicole's father has kept her name and face in front of the public with calls for a march against violence Oct. 5, on what would have been her 17th birthday.
He has formed a committee that includes Estrada, a leader in the successful campaign to end Navy bombing on the island of Vieques, and the parents of other young victims of violence.
In what they say will be the largest demonstration of its kind here to date, family members of murder victims plan to carry photographs of their loved ones as they march silently through the capital's business district.
Police have arrested two men after finding a weapons cache at Villa Esperanza, including a 9 mm Smith & Wesson pistol linked to bullet casings found at the scene of Nicole's shooting. But they have not found the AK-47 or AR-15 rifle that fired the round that struck her.
The arrests have sparked public debate about the constitutional right of island suspects to post bail. The Legislature, meanwhile, is considering new laws to increase penalties for killing innocent bystanders with stray bullets.
'Make something positive'
Nicole's parents have declined to comment on the arrests, the bail debate or other measures being discussed. Instead, they have been releasing her school papers and detailing her plans for the future.
She dreamed of opening a fashion-design studio with her best friend. She planned to apply this year to Boston University, where her boyfriend studies business administration, to study marketing. She wanted to travel, to marry, to raise a family.
Her sister Bianca found a slip of paper on which Nicole wrote the names she would give her children.
Sitting in his office, Nestor Muñiz pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. He spoke slowly and evenly.
"She was a really sweet person, a nice person, very affectionate," the San Juan businessman said. "She was really focused on what she wanted. She was working very hard."
Muñiz says he is not involved in politics and has no experience in organizing public events. He wants all segments of society to join in realizing his daughter's dream: an end to the violence.
"Nicole is the spark that lights this, but it's not only her," he said. "It's all the innocent young people, dying and killing each other. We're using the death of Nicole to try to make something positive."