National Guard to the Rescue! Silas Gamble?
In mid-July, after resisting the move for months, Governor, Sila Calderón called up the Puerto Rico National Guard to check the burgeoning murder rate on the island, caused principally by shoot-outs and revenge killings among rival drug dealers.
With a homicide rate more than three times the United States average and public outrage mounting, the lame duck Governor apparently felt forced to make the move. So far this year, the island was victim to over 800 felonies, an increase of 11% more than a like period in 2003. During each year of the Calderón Administration, the murder rate had either increased or stayed the same and, at the time of the Guard call-up, that grim statistic was 30 deaths higher than at the same time last year. According to the FBI, more murders per capita take place in Puerto Rico than in any other state of the union.
By the time she dispatched the Guard, the rising crime rate had become a campaign issue and even members of her own Popular Democratic Party (PDP) urged the Governor to make some dramatic move to deflect partisan rebuke of the PDP in an election year. Former New Progressive Party (NPP) Governor Pedro Rosselló is running for his old desk at La Fortaleza and has vowed to return to a tough policy on drug dealers if elected. His PDP opponent, current Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, reportedly had been urging Governor Calderón to act decisively in the crime crisis.
As Governor, Rosselló dispatched National Guard troops to selected public housing projects when the need arose. Crime dropped following the raids, but complaints were heard of heavy handed tactics by some soldiers. Even though the Rosselló policy was successful in reducing the murder rate, the newly elected Governor Calderón disavowed it and sent the Guard back to its traditional duties.
A former NPP Governor and Resident Commissioner, Carlos Romero Barceló, has been vocal in his charges of ineffectiveness by the Calderon Administration to suppress the criminals. "After three and a half years of this misguided Administration, crime is more rampant than ever, and more and more citizens feel the situation s getting out of hand."
Management of the growing crime rate has been a political "Achilles heal" for the Governor, as her many attempts at reform of the police have not borne fruit. She has announced numerous crime reduction plans and has appointed four separate police superintendents in her three and one half years in office.
Current Police Superintendent Agustin Cartagena follows three predecessors who have quit in frustration over what they allege was political influence over police operations. Each tried new "war on crime" initiatives, including increased police patrols, the use of helicopters to observe known concentrations of drug activity and the use of K-9 units to sniff out hidden weapons.
Another problem facing the war on crime on the island is the perennial presence of police corruption. In January, a dozen state and municipal agents were arrested by federal authorities for their alleged participation in a drugs and weapons illegal trafficking scheme. Superintendent Cartagena publicly acknowledged the problem on taking office, telling an Associated Press (AP) reporter that "corruption has increased a bit in the last couple of years (and) there is a need for more rigorous supervision of the first ranking officers, who are most often the ones involved in corruption schemes."
Just months before the National Guards recent domestic deployment, the Calderón Administration had announced a "new" policy of replacing municipal police with state police to patrol Puerto Ricos public housing projects. She was quick to explain that this move was different from Rossellós decision to deploy the National Guard for the same purpose, explaining that these law enforcement officers would be trained to be "a part of the community."
Then, in Julys reversal of her long-standing aversion to doing so, the Governor ordered the National Guard out into the streets. So as not to be seen as duplicating the tactics of her predecessor -- the one she earlier repudiated she stressed that the role of the Guard would be one limited to "support" of the police. Realizing that this new move would be seen as "flip flopping" from her previous position, the Governors Fortaleza aides announced the mobilization when she was off the island on an unofficial visit.
The call-up dispatched 500 troops to patrol public areas in the islands major cities, ostensibly to free up regular police to mobilize in public housing complexes and other drug dealing markets in Puerto Rico. In fact, the soldiers role has somewhat changed since then, with Guardsmen sharing patrol car duty with uniformed police.
Calderón Administration spokespeople report that since the Guard deployment began, crime rates are beginning to improve. They cite increased drug arrests and a decrease in violent deaths by 1/2 of what they were during the same period last year.
No one questions the need to take decisive action in areas controlled by the drug lords. In some public housing projects, they have become unofficial "mayors," deciding who can move in and who can continue to live there. Their power is such that people are terrified to give information to the police and often become complicit in assisting in the traffic of illegal substances. In some cases, residents have impeded police in making arrests and in some cases have actively shielded drug dealers from police detection.
It is ironic that the Puerto Rico National Guard, that since 9/11 has seen its units deployed to the treacherous hills of Afghanistan and the angry streets of Iraq, is today searching for "bad guys" in its own backyard. The cost of the Guard call-up is estimated at $2 million each month.
The question for Herald readers this week is to decide if Governor Calderóns call-up of the Guard was a responsible move likely to have a positive impact on the islands crime situation or whether it was it a political ploy to mask a failing anti-crime policy.
How do you rate Sila Calderóns call-up of the Puerto Rico National Guard to fight drug crime on the island. Was it or was it not a wise move?