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War On Drugs: Puerto Ricans Suffer The Social Costs


August 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

If you want to see the failure of the U.S. drug war policies, go to Puerto Rico. In late July, Puerto Rico's Gov. Sila Calderón announced that she was calling in the National Guard to patrol San Juan metropolitan-area neighborhoods.

Reprising a tactic that was used by her predecessor, Pedro Roselló in 1992, Calderón was forced into action by a surge of killings carried out by rival drug gangs. The resulting crime wave has become the major political issue in this November's gubernatorial election, which pits statehood advocate Roselló against Aníbal Acevedo, the candidate of Calderón's pro-Commonwealth Party.

But more important, the increase in violent crime over the last two years in Puerto Rico has a tremendous social cost.

By mid-July, the local police had reported 797 felonies, including murders, robberies, rapes and burglaries, this year -- an increase of 11 percent over the like period in 2003. Overall, 445 murders have been committed, 21 more than last year, giving Puerto Rico a homicide rate more than three times the national average.

The difference between the current situation and 1992, when Roselló ordered the National Guard to occupy the housing projects where drug gangs were headquartered, is that the trouble has spread into previously safe areas. Recent shoot-outs have occurred at a restaurant in a hotel in a busy tourist strip and at a home-supplies store in suburban Bayamón.

The weekend before Calderón decided to call in the National Guard, three people were killed in a drive-by shooting on one of San Juan's busiest thoroughfares.

But while many hail the governor's decision, some housing-project residents are skeptical of the Guard's ability to deter the violence. And they fear that their civil rights may be violated.

The current crime wave is a symptom of larger problems.

One is Puerto Rico's rapidly deteriorating economy, with its attendant spiraling unemployment. And another is the failure of the war on drugs.

In 1999, the Caribbean for the first time in years overtook the Mexican border as the leading point of entry for cocaine into the United States. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is a desirable transfer point.

Not only did Puerto Rico attain a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designation in 1996, but three years later the Justice Department named the capital city of San Juan as one of four High Intensity Financial Crimes Areas.

In 2003, Puerto Rico's Banco Popular was accused of failing to report the laundering of $21.6 million in drug money and was threatened with criminal charges, according to a recent Washington Post story. Even the island's hotel casinos, now a major part of the economy, have been accused of laundering money.

Banco Popular agreed to pay a $20 million fine to escape prosecution, and critics charge Puerto Rico's Justice Department for being lax in investigating the casinos. Calderón is reduced to invoking the mano dura, or hard-hand policies of her predecessor, to save face.

Meanwhile, a generation of young Puerto Ricans is growing up amid violence that rivals conditions in L.A.'s South Central during the 1990s -- and that's a huge crime.

Ed Morales is a contributor to the Village Voice and Newsday and author of Living in Spanglish.

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