|On a recent trip to the New York City area, I was surprised to hear from friends about how much Puerto Rico had been in the news lately.
It was, of course, mostly bad news.
"Things are pretty bad down there, huh," I heard over and over again.
Sure, there was the viral meningitis outbreak that surged beyond original estimates, thus far sickening nearly 200 people, and infecting perhaps 2,000, not to mention the threat posed by storms as the hurricane season approaches its peak.
But mostly, they were talking about the call-up of the Puerto Rican National Guard -- not to be sent overseas this time, but to fight crime on island streets.
That sent shivers down the spines of the New York and Jersey residents I spoke with mostly friends, family, and of course cabbies and people getting drunk in the East Village -- who are not exactly strangers to crime waves.
In fact, during my visit, local street gangs were engaged in a war that caused a wave of killings, including several cops, in the City and blighted urban areas of North Jersey. And the violence was spreading to New York's better neighborhoods, and from decayed urban centers to some of the finer suburbs across the river.
Just last week, The Star-Ledger, based in Newark, reported that police were placed on high alert because gang leaders were calling for an uprising, which would include killing cops. Things got so out of hand in Irvington, New Jersey that state cops set up shop and are patrolling the city's streets.
In arguing that the crime situation in San Juan was certainly no worse than that of the New York City area, which after all was also the target of the latest al-Qaida plot, and just may be a might better, I discussed the impending elections, the history of the PRNG in fighting crime and the fact that the violence is mostly between warring drug gangs.
I don't know if I convinced anyone, but in theprocess I became convinced that the Calderón call up was a mistake, if for no other reason than the black eye it gave Puerto Rico. U.S. media interest in Puerto Rico hadn't been so high since the Navy left Vieques.
It is a very different situation today then when former Gov. Pedro Rosselló called up the Guard upon entering La Fortaleza in 1993. At that time, it was a new administration confronting an out-of-control crime situation. The visibility of the Guard was meant to send a signal, to both the criminals and the public at large, that the fight against crime was for real. Initially, it had an impact, both in a psychological and concrete way.
But the strategy cannot be sustained over the long haul, and the Rosselló administration relied on it for too long. Like any occupying force, the Guard in housing projects was too often seen as suppressing rather than protecting residents' rights and peace of mind.
The Calderón call-up, however, is a last ditch effort by a lame-duck administration that has been cowed by its political opposition to bring back Rosselló's "mano dura" approach to fighting crime. The governor's call-up of the Guard, at least on one level, appears a political defeat.
And by being the last act of an administration that burned through four police chiefs in as many years, the psychological impact of the call-up is blunted, a perception further amplified by the low profile the Guardsmen are keeping under the Calderón call-up.
The rate of killings underwent a dip since the call-up last month, according to administration officials, who said the pace of violent death had been reduced to 16 above last year's rate from the pace before the call-up, which was running at 33 killings above last year's violent death toll. In claiming victory, they also cited the results of routine drug busts in arguing the Guard call-up was working. But the killing continues -- there were three murders on Sunday and three on Wednesday, for example.
Certainly, the Guard call-up can't be hurting the fight against crime and is probably helping a bit. But for most San Juan residents, the Guard call-up is largely invisible; there are no high visibility of Guardsmen on patrol at public areas as first envisioned. Instead, pairs of guardsmen are riding rather discreetly in patrol cars with pairs of police officers. That saps the operation of its substantial psychological value.
And yet, the low-profile operation has nonetheless sparked fears in potential visitors about traveling to Puerto Rico.
The Guard call-up comes with costs beyond its nearly $2 million monthly price tag, and it can only be seen as a temporary measure. Winning the war against crime still depends on island cops, whose efforts have been harmed by the frequent leadership changes under the Calderón administration.
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