|After toying with the idea for what seems like half its term, the Calderón administration is calling up the Puerto Rico National Guard to join the fight on crime.
The move comes in the midst of a spike in crime this July, with several high profile killings and shootouts among would -be drug kingpins causing panic and creating headlines. So far, the island's murder rate this year is 33 above last year's murder rate, which has steadily risen every year since Gov. Calderón took power in January 2001. Last year, Puerto Rico's rate of killing was three times the national average.
Surely she can't be blamed for the increase in killings. But just as surely she has shown herself to be an absolute disaster in administering law enforcement policy. After all, having four heads of the Police Department in as many years is absolutely unprecedented in island history.
The decision to have the National Guard patrol island streets was announced Sunday, after a brutal triple slaying that included the killing of a police officer and a merchant. Most journalists who covered the press conference by Police Superintendent Agustín Cartegena and National Guard Adj. Gen. Francisco Márquez believed that the incident was the last straw leading to the decision to finally call up the guard to help fight crime.
But Gov. Calderón, fresh from a mysterious week-long visit to the states, said Tuesday she had made the decision to mobilize the guard before she even left on her trip - about 10 days ago, but just took awhile before enacting it.
"Several days before I left the island, I had already decided to mobilize the National Guard," Calderón said. Later she said, "I made the decision final on Saturday."
Why did more than a week go by before Calderón took the decision to mobilize the Guard and then actually announce it? And why was it that the governor "finalized" her decision a day before a horrific triple murder while still on vacation? (It turns out that the point of the governor's trip was to be with her sister stateside while she underwent a surgical procedure. But La Fortaleza steadfastly refused to provide details about the governor's trip while she was away which led to all sorts of speculation.)
Such questions are part of the reason Calderón has projected herself as a weak leader in the fight against crime.
If finally calling up the National Guard is an attempt to redress that image problem, she is taking it at the expense of her former running mate Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the Popular Democratic Party's gubernatorial candidate.
Calling up the National Guard to fight crime at this juncture, a mere months from Election Day, inevitably plays into the hands of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who initiated the strategy during his first of two terms in power starting in 1993.
There do appear to be differences in the Calderón plan and what Rosselló enacted in the early 1990s when he confronted a crime wave upon taking office. Back then, the National Guard call-up was literally designed as a show of force, aimed at instilling public confidence in the government's ability to deal with the crime problem. The Guard participated in highly publicized "takeovers" of public housing projects aimed at restoring order and public safety.
This time around, the Guard is slated to patrol in public areas, like malls and public parks, which in turn will allow police to concentrate on fighting crime directly and investigating crime.
At face value, the contemplated call-up may make more sense than having the Guard actually take part in raids and busting criminals. The philosophy to use the Guard in a way that allows the police to better do their job also appears to have merit.
But the big caveat is that the current deployment won't be free of the largest criticism launched against the Rosselló administration Guard call-up.
While having uniformed military personnel patrolling malls or beaches might instill a sense of security to local residents freaked out by crime, it will have the opposite effect on any visitor to the island, with the sight of the uniformed guardsmen announcing loud and clear that Puerto Rico has a serious crime problem.
To anyone who has been living on the island during these past few years, the crime problem has been well-known. The Rosselló approach to fighting crime, calling out the National Guard and "taking over" high crime areas such as certain public housing projects, has also been a well-known option to deal with the situation.
After years of criticizing Rosselló's so-called "mano dura" approach to fighting crime, the Calderón administration in calling up the National Guard now seems to be embracing it.
No amount of pointing out the fine differences between this call-up and the one that took place 10 years ago will change that.
The move underlines the perception that even in its waning days in power, the Calderón administration does not have a firm grasp on a crime fighting strategy.
In explaining her decision, the governor said: "Drug dealers are waging a war, and this has led to an increase in murders over the past few days. Criminals want to control drug points. This is a serious situation. That's why I decided to activate the National Guard."
Two triple murders this month and a high-profile killing at a shopping mall are worrying. But the drug war, and its mounting death toll, has been playing itself out since before Calderón took office.
The question remains: why call up the National Guard now? The likely answer is the governor feels she has run out of other options.
John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net