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Guardian Angels Set Up Branch In Puerto Rico Target Crime
Guardian Angels Set Up Anti-Crime Branch In Puerto Rico
By VERENA DOBNIK
December 9, 2003
NEW YORK (AP) - Puerto Rico is the latest target of the Guardian Angels, the citizen cops in red berets and sateen jackets who took crime-fighting into their own hands in New York City.
The Angels, founded by Curtis Sliwa in 1979, announced Tuesday that they're hitting the streets of San Juan.
"Violence associated with drug trafficking is much worse there than in New York," said Arnaldo Salinas, 42, a Bronx-born Angel who grew up on the Caribbean island and works as a security expert.
He and three other veteran Angels are to fly to Puerto Rico on Wednesday to start training some of about 40 local volunteers who have signed up for crime patrols, mostly in San Juan.
In the U.S. Caribbean territory of 4 million residents, 774 homicides were reported in 2002, about 80 percent of them drug-related.
In New York, with about 8 million residents, crime plummeted to 584 killings in 2002, and the nation's largest city is now patrolled by federal forces armed with M-16 rifles.
The unarmed Angels are only about 75 strong in the city -- a dramatic drop from their peak of about 1,000 in the 1980s.
But they've opened 27 branches in American and foreign cities including Washington, D.C., London, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.
In Puerto Rico, the Angels will be what Sliwa calls "a visual deterrent" -- working alongside armed law enforcement units and serving as eyes and ears tracking community crime.
The Angels are "a good resource for our city and our police department," said Lt. Daniel Mendez Velez, a Puerto Rican police precinct commander who has promised to assign patrol cars with armed officers as backup for the Angels.
In addition to Salinas, a business security director, the Angels traveling to San Juan this week are Miguel Vasquez, 32, a carpenter from East Harlem; Dennis Torres, 40, a Puerto Rican-born martial arts expert who lives in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood and works for the city in youth crisis intervention; and Jason Costa, 31, a youth services employee in Green Bay, Wis.
The four men have the support of Puerto Rican government officials to prepare the new volunteers, who must be at least 16 years old and undergo police background checks. Trained in self-defense and medical first aid, their goal is to facilitate arrests and galvanize a community for crime intervention.
In Puerto Rico, that task often involves tackling drug gangs that operate in neighborhoods where they offer social and financial help to struggling families.
"These gangs are taking care of little Juan and little Maria: They're giving families money, paying hospital bills," Salinas said. "It's very difficult to break that allegiance. This is not an overnight fix -- it'll take years."
Guardian Angels: http://www.guardianangels.org/
'Angels' Target Crime In Puerto Rico
With the homicide rate in Puerto Rico skyrocketing, the New York-based Guardian Angels have set up a chapter on the island.
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
January 26, 2004
TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico - Wearing the trademark red berets and with handcuffs hanging off the back of their pants, a group of men and women marched silently across a popular neighborhood park one recent evening, bringing playing children to a momentary halt and prompting parents to pass judgement on this island's newest crime-fighting team.
''Are they here to take care of this place?'' Freddy Carmona, a frequent jogger, asked another park visitor. ``This is great. Seeing them brings some peace of mind, makes you feel a little safer.''
The red-beret wearers are among nearly 50 recruits of the New York-based Guardian Angels now training for street patrols in what has become the deadliest place in the United States. Puerto Rico has three times the national average of homicides per capita.
Hoping to make a dent in the crime rate, the Guardian Angels have set up a chapter on the island. Training of the current recruits will run through early April, with street patrols expected to begin soon after, primarily in San Juan and surrounding communities that have become havens for drug gangs responsible for most of the deaths.
TAKING FIRST STEP
''Ya basta. Too many killings,'' said Arnaldo Salinas, a senior director for the Guardian Angels who flew to Puerto Rico to help set up the chapter.
''If nobody takes a step forward, nobody will follow. So we're taking the first step,'' said 35-year-old Reynaldo Anglero, one of the Guardian Angels recruits.
''We want to help take youths out of drugs and death and give them an environment of peace and love,'' said José Santos López, a furniture store employee and father of four.
An estimated 80 percent of deaths, most of which are the result of bullet wounds, are tied to a flourishing drug trade that has generated turf battles among heavily armed traffickers. Shootouts at bars, discotheques and housing projects that serve as drug distribution points have become an almost daily occurrence, resulting in several deaths of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
Just this week, a drive-by shooting at a crowded bar in San Juan left three dead and 11 wounded, bringing the death toll since the start of the new year to 45, compared to 28 during the same period last year.
The number of homicides has steadily climbed each year over the past five years. In 2003, a total of 779 people were killed on the island of four million. The previous four years the death tolls were 774, 744, 695 and 593, respectively.
Last year's body count in Puerto Rico surpassed the homicide rate of cities with twice as many residents, including New York and Chicago, both of which had about 600 murders during the same period. The turf wars have become so blatant, residents, politicians and even the police have embraced the Guardian Angels.
''We welcome anyone who wants to cooperate in a positive way to alleviate crime,'' said Col. José Denis Savales of the Puerto Rico Police Department.
The murder rate is quickly becoming a hot campaign issue and talk of a return to the ''mano dura'' or ''hard-hand'' tactic involving the use of the National Guard to dismantle drug distribution points or ''puntos de drogas'' is gaining increasing support among voters. The approach was used in the 1990s by former Gov. Pedro Rosello, who is seeking another term in elections later this year.
Rubén Gómez, the chapter leader for the Guardian Angels, is optimistic that their presence will serve as a ''visual deterrent'' to crime. The volunteers must be at least 16 years old and undergo a police background check. They do not carry weapons and are trained in self-defense and first aid. Their goal is to facilitate arrests and galvanize the population to take part in crime prevention.
But in this U.S. Caribbean territory, which serves as a transshipment point for drugs on the way to Miami and other major U.S. cities, the Guardian Angels will face tough gangs that have taken control by arming teenagers who serve as lookouts and giving financial help to struggling residents.
''It's tougher here because in New York you don't have 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds carrying guns,'' Gómez said. ``But if you get the community involved, crime will stop.''
Their effort, so far, has earned some applause even as many remain skeptical.
''Any attempt to do something is always positive,'' said Julio Rosa, a 30-year-old physical education teacher. ``Whether it will have and effect, I have my doubts but I support what they are trying to do.''