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Crime in Puerto Rico

By Carlos Romero Barcelo

July 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Very soon after the 2000 elections, the newly elected Gov. Sila Calderon made obvious to all the reason why she had wanted to be elected. It wasn’t because she wanted to do something for the people of Puerto Rico but rather because she wanted to persecute and punish all those whom she considered her political enemies. Never in the history of Puerto Rico has a governor or other principal leader been so vicious and so active in persecuting his or her adversaries as Sila Calderon.

The most widely remembered action taken by the governor in her first two months after being sworn in was the appointment of the so-called Blue Ribbon Committee, whose sole purpose was to investigate decisions, programs, and contracts entered into by the Rossello administration. All of the members she appointed were known Popular Democratic Party activists or pro-independence advocates who had publicly shown a profound dislike of Rossello. Not a single statehood supporter was appointed to the Blue Ribbon Committee.

Her administration has been energized by insulting the opposition, by blaming the Rossello administration for all the failures and lack of achievements of her administration. Even today, after three and a half years, she and her cohorts still blame the Rossello administration for all of their failures.

Not only have they persecuted the opposition; they have encouraged their own supporters to violate the law by rewarding them when they lie, destroy public documents, distort data, or discriminate against and persecute former public officials who worked with Rossello.

After three and a half years of Sila Calderon’s misguided administration, crime is more rampant than ever, and more and more citizens feel the situation s getting out of hand.

Early in 2001, the successful Rossello policy of Mano Dura (Strong Hand) against crime was dismantled, and no perceivable plan of action has replaced that program. We have seen an administration that instead of guaranteeing the safety and security of our citizens has let loose a witch hunt against statehooders, has gone out of its way to criminalize the struggle for equality, carrying out vicious and prejudiced investigations and persecuting the opposition, not only with Police and Department of Justice prosecutors in the courts but also in the agencies and through ill-conceived legislative hearings.

Instead of focusing on the serious crimes committed by hardened criminals and drug dealers, it has persecuted "criminals" such as Carlos Pesquera, Leo Diaz, Edwin Mundo, Jose Aponte, Thomas Rivera Schatz, Miriam Ramirez, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Abel Nazario, who committed the "unacceptable" crime of insisting that the U.S. flag be placed where it should have been. It has spent millions of dollars carrying out investigations, filing charges, and taking to court statehooders such as Jose "Chemo" Soto, Felix Plaud, and Jorge Aponte while drug dealers kill teenagers and threaten law-abiding citizens and go unpunished.

While statehooders were being prosecuted, the governor and leaders of the Popular Democratic Party were praising and applauding what they called peaceful resistance in Vieques. The police was specifically instructed not to intervene when those "peaceful" demonstrators cut the iron fences; trespassed onto the Navy’s property; threw rocks, Molotov cocktails, and heavy objects at the Marines and the Navy personnel; destroyed vehicles with hammers and other metal objects; and demolished structures. All of this happened in front of the police, who merely stood by without making any attempt to intervene. Many of the rioters were wearing masks, which is an additional violation of the law and a felony while committing a criminal act. No arrests were made by the police, and no charges were brought against the rioters by the Puerto Rico Department of Justice.

The message to the people of Puerto Rico was clear. Sila Calderon’s government would persecute statehooders in a discriminatory fashion but would allow its own populares and the independentistas to violate the law and commit acts of violence, if such acts suited the political purposes of Sila Calderon. Memories of Trujillo, Castro, and Hitler during their rise to power?

With this background, how could the Department of Justice and the police carry out an effective fight against crime? As a result of this attitude and of the lack of clear policy or programs to fight crime, the number of homicides, which in 1999 had gone down to 568, rose to over 780 in 2003 and at the current pace promises to exceed 800 this year.

The first superintendent appointed by Calderon, Pierre Vivoni, didn’t last long, and his short tenure was a complete fiasco. Then came Miguel Pereira, who showed a complete lack of competence and understanding of his job. Crime continued to rise. The third superintendent, Victor Rivera, was another failure and had to resign. The new superintendent, Agustin Cartagena, hasn’t been here long enough and must be frustrated with the meddling of the Popular Democratic Party members of the Legislature, who constantly try to influence the Police and Justice departments in order to protect their friends and cronies. As a result, during the three and a half years of this administration, the control that drug lords exercise in their distribution areas has grown dangerously.

The government isn’t telling the people what is happening. And for some reason, most of the press either isn’t aware of what is happening in the housing projects and in other barrios that live in fear of upsetting the drug lords or is failing in its duty to inform the public. In some of the housing projects, the drug lords have such complete control of the neighborhood and of the housing-administration office that they decide who can move in, who can keep their jobs, and who has to go. If someone living in the housing project, gives, or is believed to have given, any information to the authorities, he and members of his family may be killed or told to leave their homes, never to return–just like in the old cowboy movies. And nothing is being done. Let us examine the administration’s record during the past three and a half years:

1.The Calderon administration transferred, retired, or filed administrative complaints against the officers who during Toledo’s years as superintendent had been successful at reducing crime, replacing them with police officers active in the Popular Democratic Party’s very politicized internal organization called Poli-ELA.

2. There have been six or seven anticrime plans announced by the governor and the superintendents, and all of them have failed.

3. The drug czar position was eliminated.

4. The program developed under Rossello to occupy the housing projects with National Guard units, which had been so successful in restoring peace and order in the projects, was dismantled in the first three months of the Calderon administration. These housing projects have since fallen under the control of the drug lords.

5. The so-called public-order codes, which were highly publicized by Gov. Sila Calderon, have failed to fulfill their promise and juvenile delinquency has increased islandwide.

6. The police guards in schools, under the Zelda Plan, were removed to the great relief and satisfaction of the drug dealers in the school areas.

7. Sila Calderon made an attempt to legalize civil disobedience by means of a bill, filed in the Legislature in summer 2001, that would have protected those who violated the law in support of the Navy’s ouster from Vieques. How destructive of the government’s moral authority can you get?

How can a government be successful at fighting crime when it politicizes its public performance and its law-enforcement organizations and tries to legalize violations of the law if committed for political purposes supported by the administration?

As if all of this weren’t enough, it has now passed a new Penal Code, approved without debate behind the people’s back, in a process where the necessary debate wasn’t allowed. This new code reduces the penalty for many serious crimes by approximately 40%, when most of the criminals are at least second- and third-time offenders.

My own daughter, Melinda Romero-Donnelly, was accused by the speaker of the House of Representatives of an alleged ethical violation for trying to exercise her right to free speech pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, the Puerto Rico Constitution, and the rules and regulations of the House of Representatives. She was charged with unethical conduct because she dared claim she had a right to point out and discuss the ill-conceived measures and other serious errors and mistakes in the Penal Code that was about to be, and was, hastily passed without debate–a law so bad, so poorly drafted that even before final passage, amendments to correct serious errors and omissions were being drafted.

To be able to fight crime with some degree of success, we must revamp and reorganize our law-enforcement agencies. We don’t need any more laws; we have enough. What we need is to appoint responsible, honest, and capable people to carry out the government’s anticrime policy. We mustn’t allow our Police Department, our Department of Justice, and our courts to ever again be used to protect criminals while they harass and persecute responsible, law-abiding citizens just because these have different political ideals.

The principal perpetrator and instigator of political persecution has been Gov. Sila Calderon, together with her handpicked supporters Anibal Acevedo Vila and Roberto Prats Palerm. Fortunately, she isn’t coming back. Good riddance! But we can’t forget and mustn’t allow what has happened during this administration to occur in Puerto Rico ever again.

Carlos Romero Barcelo is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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