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Two-Front Battle In Puerto Rico: Crime And Apathy…Homicides Soar Past U.S. Average

Two-Front Battle In Puerto Rico: Crime And Apathy


December 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, P.R. – It was a long autumn for Nestor Muñiz, and the winter, he guesses, will be longer still. A stray bullet killed his daughter Nicole as she drove past a housing project here one August night, a month before her 17th birthday.

She was among more than 750 people killed this year in Puerto Rico, a small island (only twice the size of Rhode Island) with a homicide rate more than three times the United States average. More murders per capita take place here than in any American state, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Since Nicole's death, which was widely covered by the news media here, Mr. Muñiz has made lowering crime on the island his mission. He has organized a march with other relatives of murder victims, lobbied politicians and worked to inspire a collective sense of responsibility among Puerto Ricans – the most crucial step, he says, toward abating the problem.

"It's going to take a big, big change," Mr. Muñiz said, taking a break at the furniture shop he manages in San Juan, where 1.5 million of the island's nearly 4 million residents live and where most of the island's violent deaths take place. "People here have been like, `If it didn't happen to me, I don't care.' "

Nicole's killing commanded more attention than most because of its randomness, but the outpouring of concern did not slow the homicide rate, which the police attribute largely to the drug trade. Three superintendents of the Puerto Rico Police Department have quit in two years; the latest, Victor Rivera González, is leaving Jan. 6. In an interview, he said that even a last-minute offer to raise his $107,000 salary by $20,000 did not sway him.

Superintendent Rivera said the root problem was insufficient staffing: Puerto Rico has 21,000 police officers, and by his reckoning, the force should grow by at least 4,000. He said he envied New York City's police force, but in fact the ratio there is about the same: 40,000 officers for a population of 8 million.

As of Dec. 14, New York had 569 murders this year, according to the New York police. Puerto Rico had 752 by Dec. 17. Last year there were 774 murders on the island, up from 744 in 2001, the F.B.I. said.

The island's major newspapers keep a running tab of the deaths, with graphic articles about shootings, stabbings and carjackings almost daily. This month alone, there have been articles about a quadruple homicide outside a San Juan disco and the shooting death of a nursery school teacher in Juncos who was hunted down in her home by a gang seeking revenge on her brother.

After Nicole's death, Superintendent Rivera announced a new war on street crime that doubled police patrols from 4 p.m. Friday to 4 a.m. Monday, sent frequent helicopter patrols over known drug-dealing areas and dispatched K-9 units to sniff out guns at nightclubs, where many shootings have taken place.

The police have also tried to reduce an estimated 1,500 drug puntos, or distribution spots, with frequent raids, Superintendent Rivera said. And the department has shortened the initial training time for recruits, to get them on the streets faster.

Because of its 270 miles of coastline, much of it isolated, and its location between South America and the United States, Puerto Rico has long been a way station for shipments of cocaine and marijuana. About 75 percent of the drugs move on to Miami, New York and other points north, Superintendent Rivera said.

Young men peddle the drugs that remain here, often in the housing projects of San Juan, he said. The competition among dealers is fierce and often fatal.

Murders of drug dealers and their associates are by far the most common kind, which leads some Puerto Ricans to play down the problem.

"It's not a good idea to be on the street or in the discothèque at 3 or 4 in the morning," said Freddy Van, a cabdriver in San Juan. "But if you go early or don't go at all, you don't have a problem."

Superintendent Rivera says he wants a law requiring bars and nightclubs to close at 2 a.m. A Puerto Rican legislator proposed such a bill after the quadruple murder outside the disco, but the island's powerful tourism industry is fighting it.

Another proposed law would increase penalties for killings by stray gunfire, which are on the rise. But some legislators said creating laws would not help, pointing to a strict gun-control law passed in 2000 that they said had done nothing to diminish a huge illegal gun trade.

"We have enough laws on the books," said Iris Miriam Ruíz, a minority leader in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. "We need to enforce the existing laws better and deal with the economic problems of Puerto Rico."

Ms. Ruíz said it would also help to find a police superintendent who would stay on the job, because the department was "a difficult bureaucracy" and new superintendents needed time to win the loyalty of the force. Ms. Ruíz, like other members of the minority political party, the New Progressive Party, said Gov. Sila Calderón was too soft on crime and Puerto Rico needed a return to mano dura, or strong hand tactics.

Ms. Calderón's predecessor, Pedro Rosello, used that approach in his two terms in the 1990's, when the murder rate dropped after the number reached a high of 995 in 1994. Now Mr. Rosello is running for governor again and promising to bring back mano dura, an approach that involved, among other things, having the National Guard swoop down on housing projects.

Like Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's anticrime tactics in New York, Mr. Rosello's drew complaints of civil rights violations.

Superintendent Rivera said that the news media had exaggerated the crime problem and that most categories of crime, including robbery, rape, aggravated assault and car theft, were down this year. He said it would be hard to adopt New York's intensive crime-fighting tactics without sharply raising police salaries, which he said start at about $21,300. In New York, the entry-level police salary is $34,500.

One point on which Superintendent Rivera and his critics agree is that Puerto Rico's bail laws need overhauling. The island's Constitution does not allow judges to deny bail and gives them wide discretion in setting it, so many accused killers go free while awaiting trial.

In one high-profile case, a man accused of killing a teenage trumpet player turned out to have been out on bail after being charged in another killing months earlier.

Mr. Muñiz said that bail reform would help but that the biggest change had to be in the apathetic attitude he says has engulfed the island.

When a convoy of police vehicles descended on a drug punto in the Vista Hermosa housing project one recent Friday night, a crowd that had gathered for an outdoor party watched impassively as the police arrested a teenage boy and an older man, seizing bags of crack cocaine and marijuana from their pockets.

A woman in a Santa Claus hat had been selling rolling papers at a table on the sidewalk and seemed to barely notice the disruption.

Mr. Muñiz, who said he was never involved in politics or crime fighting before Nicole's death, said that his best consciousness-raising effort to date had been a march on Oct. 5, Nicole's 17th birthday. As many as 1,000 relatives of murder victims participated, he said, many carrying photos of their dead.

Next year, billboards will go up around San Juan with a picture of Nicole, who had hoped to study fashion design at Boston University, and a line from an essay she wrote shortly before her death: "I only wish that violence comes to an end." Mr. Muñiz hopes people will notice.

Slayings In Puerto Rico Soar Past U.S. Average

By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer

January 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Homicides in Puerto Rico Motives for 2003 homicides (percent)
2003 -- 779 Drugs: 50
2002 -- 774 Fights: 10
2001 -- 744 Robbery, burglary and carjacking: 5
2000 -- 695 Domestic violence: 4
1999 -- 593 Passion: 1
1998 -- 652 Other: 3
1997 -- 724 Undetermined: 28
SOURCE: Puerto Rico Police Department
LOÍZA, Puerto Rico -- The execution-style killing last weekend of former Major League Baseball player Iván Calderón put an exclamation point on another bloody year in Puerto Rico.

The one-time National League All-Star, shot to death by unidentified gunmen, was among the 779 people killed in the U.S. commonwealth in 2003 -- five more than the previous year, and the most since 1996, according to police statistics.

The toll gives this island of 3.8 million a homicide rate more than three times the national average. In a cycle of death fueled largely by the island drug trade, more people are killed here per capita than in any U.S. state. Homicide numbers for the island dwarfed those of major U.S. cities such as New York with 596 and Chicago, which with 599 killings became America's murder capital.

The bloodshed has continued into 2004, with at least four slayings reported on New Year's Day.

The government has appeared helpless to stop the killing. Longer police shifts and increased nighttime patrols appeared to slow the murder rate during the fall but did not prevent the annual toll from rising. Now Gov. Sila M. Calderón's third police superintendent has announced his resignation, and she has not nominated a successor.

Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who in the 1990s called in the National Guard to patrol public-housing projects' areas, is campaigning for a return to office with a promise to restore his "hard-hand" approach to crime. The Guardian Angels, the citizen-patrol organization from New York, hit the island last month to form and train a local chapter. And the families of victims are planning a billboard campaign this year to call attention to the rising crime rates.

"We have to start looking for something that will be effective," said San Juan businessman Nestor Muñíz, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed by a stray bullet in August. "People in Puerto Rico are tired of the crime and violence."

Last Saturday's shooting of Calderón was one of a series of high-profile killings here during a year that began with the arrest of a teenager in the shooting and stabbing deaths of his younger brother, mother, father and grandmother in the mountain town of San Sebastian.

Also last January, three witnesses were shot to death outside a courthouse in Carolina. The summer and fall saw public attacks that killed three at a nightclub in Bayamón, three outside a mall in the same town and four in a parking lot in the Santurce section of San Juan.

In August, 16-year-old Nicole Muñíz Martínez was struck and killed by a stray bullet as she drove past a public-housing project in the capital. In October, an 18-year-old trumpet prodigy was shot to death in his San Juan home. Last month, an 11th-grade student allegedly stabbed a math teacher to death at a high school in Quebradillas.

"We have been in this hole for the last three decades," said the Rev. Wilfredo Estrada Adorno, general secretary of the Puerto Rican Bible Society and a prominent activist here. "Values have been lost somehow. What we see today are the symptoms of a real illness."

No arrests yet

Iván Calderón, 41, was relaxing at the El Trompo bar in the north coast town of Loíza two days after Christmas when two gunmen entered and opened fire.

The outfielder had returned to Loíza after a 10-year career with the Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox. Just east of San Juan, the town is known as a rough community that has been overwhelmed in recent years by drug gangs.

Calderón, who was married and had seven children, raised fighting cocks -- a legal pastime here -- and worked occasionally as a moneylender and bondsman.

Police say they have identified several suspects in the killing, but they have made no arrests. According to reports in the local media, representatives of a drug gang had warned Calderón to turn over his 18-year-old son, who allegedly was involved in the death of one of their members, or be killed himself.

Calderón's wake and funeral this week drew hundreds of mourners to Loíza, including the New York Yankees' Rubén Sierra and Bernie Williams.

Officials attribute many of the killings to the drug trade. Hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine and heroin pass through this Connecticut-sized island annually on the way from South America to the mainland United States.

Gov. Calderón has blamed some of the violence on a police crackdown on puntos, drug-selling points, where she said constant raids had left dealers battling for control of ever-shrinking turf.

While homicides here increased in 2003, the overall rate of violent crime -- including rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- fell by 12 percent from the year before, according to police statistics. Crimes against property, including burglary and auto theft, also fell by 12 percent.

'Angels' train volunteers

The delegation of Guardian Angels arrived from New York last month to begin training about 40 residents who have volunteered for crime patrols.

Nestor Muñíz, who organized an antiviolence march that drew hundreds to San Juan on what would have been his daughter's birthday in October, now heads a committee developing crime-fighting ideas to present to Gov. Calderón.

The committee also is planning to erect billboards featuring Nicole's bright eyes and broad smile with her wish, written in an assignment for school, that the violence be brought to an end.

"We as a people have to change," Muñiz said. "There are a lot of problems we have to deal with -- the family, drugs, education. It's not an easy task, but we will have to work on everything."

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