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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Angels On Guard

By Matthew Hay Brown

September 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico · The three men were quietly fanning out along the sidewalk, keeping their eyes on the teenagers in the dark by the old sea wall, when the woman spotted their distinctive red berets.

"The Angels!" shouted the middle-aged church worker, who would give her name only as Deborah. "New York! You guys are down here now? All right!"

The Guardian Angels have returned to Puerto Rico. While bloody battles for control of the illegal drug trade push the homicide rate toward new heights, the first eight citizen crime fighters now are patrolling high-crime areas in and around San Juan.

"I want to change a person's point of view," Miguel "Shadow" Rosario, 33, a computer technician from the suburb of Guaynabo, said as he walked with two fellow Angels among the tourists who crowd the narrow streets of Old San Juan.

"Everyone is on their own planet," Rosario said. "If we care for our neighbor, our neighbor will care for us. That will change the world."

The second coming of the Angels -- an earlier Puerto Rico chapter fizzled in the mid-1990s -- is the latest in a series of responses to the mounting violence in this U.S. territory of 3.8 million. A killing Friday morning brought the homicide toll to 302 so far this year, 33 more than during the same period last year.

The homicide rate is three times the national U.S. average and higher than any individual state's.

New police Superintendent Agustín Cartagena -- the fourth to hold the position during Gov. Sila Calderón's term -- has reshuffled top management in the department, increased salaries, and secured new cruisers, cameras and other equipment for his officers. Calderón has unveiled an advertising campaign to promote peace.

Now come the Angels. Organizers see the new recruits as the nucleus of a chapter that will grow and spread throughout the island, eventually becoming what they expect will be the largest and strongest outpost of Angels in the world.

"We have a need, and we have momentum," said Arnaldo "13" Salinas, a founding member and now international director of the movement that began 25 years ago in New York. "Puerto Rico is at the stage that we have to do something. Doors have opened to us."

Salinas, a security consultant in New York, says the Angels decided to return to Puerto Rico after conversations with Nestor Muñiz, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed last summer in the crossfire between rival gang members, and Rafael Morales, president of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.

"Most communities are made of people that are very decent and hardworking, 99 percent," he said. "It's that 1 percent, that criminal element, that messes it up for everyone, and they control through fear.

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