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The Hartford Courant

Deadly Tradition Must End: U.S. Agency's Help Sought

Commonwealth Seeks An End To Deadly New Year's Celebrations

By MATTHEW HAY BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

January 12, 2004
Copyright ©2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The sun had barely set on 2003 when Jessica Pacheco Calvente and her mother left home on New Year's Eve to get supplies for the celebration to come. But already the shooting had started.

With bullets falling over this Caribbean island, Jessica wouldn't see 2004. At 8:30 p.m., the 10-year-old was struck in the back of the head outside the Quintana Gardens housing complex in the Hato Rey section of San Juan by a round that lodged in her brain.

At the girl's burial last week, an inconsolable María Elena Calvente had a simple request for anyone who would listen.

"Please, don't ring out the year anymore with gunfire," Jessica's mother said in a message read by a family spokesperson. "It is carrying away the most precious ones of our generation."

Despite a broad public-awareness campaign in the weeks leading up to New Year's Eve, with warnings of increased police patrols and stiff penalties for offenders, Jessica became the fourth islander killed by celebratory gunfire in the past five years. Stray bullets injured at least 23 residents late Dec. 31 or early Jan. 1.

A baby girl remained hospitalized in stable condition late last week after she was struck in the head while in the arms of her mother at 10:30 p.m. Dec. 31 outside their home in the Rio Piedras section of San Juan.

"What I saw does not have forgiveness from God," Gov. Sila M. Calderón said after visiting 4-month-old Saymi López and her family at the Rio Piedras Medical Center. The hospital would not release updated information on the child Sunday.

Officials in this U.S. commonwealth have turned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for assistance. The island Department of Health has exchanged information with the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and plans to submit a formal request for an epidemiological study in the coming days.

"This moment has to carry our people to a pause and an intense reflection on why this has happened and what are its roots," Calderón said. "Here there was a strong campaign against discharging firearms, and nonetheless, many people ignored it, with these tragic results."

Islanders long have celebrated the despedida del año, or farewell to the year, by shooting into the air. This new year, pistol shots and machine-gun fire rang through the night across San Juan.

The phenomenon isn't unique to Puerto Rico. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities have attempted in recent years to curb the dangerous practice. While injuries and fatalities from celebratory gunfire have been reported throughout the United States, no federal agency keeps comprehensive statistics.

"Very few people know that when you shoot into the air, that bullet comes back at 120 miles per hour," said the psychologist Salvador Santiago Negrón, president of Carlos Albizu University in San Juan. "It will go through your skull."

Santiago, who was named by Calderón last year to a task force on violence in Puerto Rico, said the phenomenon should be approached as a public-health problem, like diseases that once killed islanders.

"Tuberculosis, pertussis, diphtheria: We conquered them because we studied them," he said. "The same thing applies to violence. You have to study the factors that are risk factors. Why do some communities participate and others don't? What are the motivations?"

At the municipal cemetery last week in San Juan, the Rev. José M. Vargas praised the decision of Jessica's family to donate her organs to other patients.

"Jessica is alive because her heart beats in the body of another little girl," Vargas said.

Joining her family at the cemetery was Lucy Centeno. Her daughter, 12-year-old Jennifer Pérez Centeno, was killed by a stray bullet on New Year's Day 2003 in their hometown of Canóvanas.

There have been no arrests in Jessica's shooting. Officials have called on witnesses to turn in those who fired guns into the air during New Year's celebrations. One legislator, Rep. Carlos "Charlie" Hernández López, has spoken of establishing a "ballistic register" that would allow police to trace bullets to the guns that fired them.

Calderón called on all sectors of society to confront "this evil of violence" and promised new measures to control it.

"Puerto Rico always has been a peaceful people," she said. "We cannot tolerate nor permit violence to take root in our country."

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