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With The Highest Murder Rate In The U.S., Puerto Rico Needs Immediate Solutions
By TAINA ROSA
January 20, 2005
Detaining Crime In Puerto Rico
With 60% of murders linked to illegal drugs, the answer to reducing crime lies in improving police education and technology and improving social deficiencies leading to drug traffic and use.
If you asked anyone in Puerto Rico what the No. 1 problem on the island is, they more than likely would respond without hesitation, crime. The fact is more murders occur in Puerto Rico than anywhere in the mainland U.S., according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Once again, Puerto Ricowith a population of 4 millionended the year with an alarming homicide rate, higher than the three-largest cities in the mainland U.S. With 790 murders reported during 2004, the island had a higher murder rate than New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
For the third-consecutive year, the number of murders in New York City (total population 8 million) has been under 600, ending 2004 with 571 murders, 25 less than in 2003. Los Angeles (total population 4 million) reported 511 murders and, for the first time in four decades, Chicagos (total population 3 million) homicide rate fell below 500 to 445, a 25% decrease compared to 2003.
Puerto Ricos mean homicide rate is three times that of the total U.S. mainland and four times that of Europe. More than 60% of homicides on the island are linked to drug trafficking although sources within the Puerto Rico Police Department say the percentage may be as high as 75%.
Puerto Ricos high murder rate is just one of the challenges newly designated Police Chief Pedro Toledo must address now that he has returned to head the Police Department, following a four-year absence during which the Sila Calderón administration changed police chiefs four times in four years.
Toledo also must address the increasing illegal drug problem and the crises among the men in blue, who demand higher salaries and better working conditions. Local police officers earn an average of $25,200 a year. The average police officer salary in the mainland U.S. is $38,000. Commonwealth budgetary problems, however, make salary increases for police officers unlikely in the near future. Toledo said he supports raising police officers salaries, but left it up to the Management & Budget Office to find a source for the funds needed to make the raise effective.
Puerto Ricos agenda
A lot has been said about Puerto Ricos agenda since Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá uttered the term in his inaugural address Jan. 2. But what really concerns the residents of Puerto Rico more than anything is the quality-of-life agenda, which transcends politics, political parties, and political colors.
The illegal drug trade is responsible for more than 60% of the murders in Puerto Rico, and behind this trade are major quality-of-life issues that must be addressed by the islands leaders in the local executive, legislative, and judicial branches as well as federal government agencies.
Issues such as urban sprawl, underperforming schools, guns, and youth violence, the lack of affordable housing, and overwhelmed parents coping with the demands of work and family are contributing to the decline in the quality of life in Puerto Rico.
The quality-of-life agenda, far from being a political catchphrase, has to do with economic and noneconomic concerns. On an island where unemployment is above 10% and long-term job security appears to be fading, parents view their childrens education and future through their own job insecurities. Parents in Puerto Rico know that only through better education and continuous learning will their children equal or surpass their own economic circumstances. With most families becoming two-income households, parents have less time to spend with their children and to monitor their friends and activities.
José Taboada of the Puerto Rico Police Force Association believes Puerto Ricos crime problem is being generated by the disintegration of the traditional family. "We have astonishingly high divorce and school dropout rates. Schools arent teaching proper values, and many young people simply have no respect for authority," said Taboada.
Mano Dura is back
Mano Dura, the zero-tolerance approach to crime that Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo implemented under the Rosselló administration from 1992 to 2000 is defended by some, but shunned by others. Shortly after making his comeback as superintendent in January, Toledo and Acevedo Vilá told reporters the program would be brought back to stop the crime wave, stirring up a debate once more. However, the pros and cons of this strategy must be addressed to make it more effective.
Mano Dura previously targeted public-housing projects as the areas where most criminal activity in Puerto Rico took place. Subsequently, law enforcement, with the help of National Guard troops, would raid the housing projects and install monitoring offices within them. Under Mano Dura, the government increased the number of police officers, purchased more security equipment, and enacted harsher prison sentences for drug dealers as part of a battle to stop the flow of illegal drugs to the U.S. mainland.
The occupation of public-housing projects didnt start under Mano Dura. In fact, it was implemented in the late 1980s during Rafael Hernández Colóns administration, according to José Vargas Vidot, president of Iniciativa Comunitaria.
Defenders of Mano Dura say these zero-tolerance policies helped reduce Puerto Ricos crime rate. Police statistics from 1993 to 2000 prove them right. While a total of 26,342 violent crimes were reported in 1993, in 2000 that number had been cut in half.
Murder rates, included in the above figures, went from 954 in 1993, to 695 in 2000, a 27.1% reduction. That spells quite a relief, especially considering that from 1985 to 1992, murder rates had jumped 51%.
Toledo has forecast it will take a few years to reduce crime and crime rates could climb before taking a downturn as happened during his previous terms.
For instance, the highest number of murders committed in a single year was registered while Mano Dura was in place. Police statistics dating to 1940 show there have never been more murders in Puerto Rico than in 1994, when 995 murders were reported. It is also true murder rates declined during the subsequent years.
In addition, in 1994, Puerto Rico obtained the dubious distinction of being named a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (Hidta) and also a High Intensity Financial Crimes Area by the federal government. The local Hidta office, which covers Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, has garnered many awards for its work to dismantle drug-trafficking organizations (DTO) on the islands as well as in drug-producing countries. "In 2003, we dismantled 103 DTOs," said José Álvarez, director of Hidta in San Juan, adding the integration of local and federal forces was very important in achieving this effort. However, the island hasnt been able to dispel these negative associations.
A 1999 study on Mano Dura published by doctoral student Zaire Dinzey from University of Michigan revealed this strategy "resulted in daily advertisement of public-housing projects as the source of criminal activity [P]ublic housing residents experienced a criminalizing process that, in the case of San Juan, was simply not empirically supported."
However, she did point out in her study that in the case of Ponce, the policy resulted in effective reductions in crime and attributed the success to proper targeting or better empirical support. "Particularities of certain regions and certain locations may deem a policy appropriate for some places, but ineffective for others," wrote Dinzey.
Aside from criminalizing public-housing projects as focal points for crime, police and National Guard interventions can cause the population of these projects to feel more vulnerable and teach children that violence is an accepted method to solve problems.
"These interventions scar residents of housing projects. I remember once I was at Las Gladiolas," Vargas Vidot recalled. "It was a Wednesday afternoon, and suddenly the National Guard and state and municipal police ran through every single story of the building, knocked down every apartments door, and invaded each one. After all that, they didnt find anything so they just went away, and left all the destruction behind."
Years later, Vargas Vidot said, the residents are still suffering the interventions. "Recently, during the holidays, I visited Las Gladiolas again. It was about 7 p.m. when someone lit a single firecracker, which at this time of year happens even in upper-class neighborhoods," he remembered. "Well, as a result of that single firecrackers explosion, the police raided the housing project and began firing their guns until they had used up all of their bullets. They fired so many shots that they left the ground full of shells. We at Iniciativa Comunitaria are considering making a mural using the casings they left to create awareness of this problem."
Situations like this one are sure to have a deep, negative, and emotional impact on the children who experience them. "How do you think such a violent display of force from police officers is going to affect children?" Vargas Vidot asked rhetorically. "They will grow up thinking the police are the enemy, they are violent, and they are invaders."
Also under the Mano Dura regime, incarceration rates reached a serious level330 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, as indicated in a 1998 federal Department of Justice report on prisoners. In absolute numbers, this translates into almost 17,000 people imprisoned. This incarceration rate is higher than 23 states and all the U.S. territories. That same year, Puerto Rico had 12,747 prisoners sentenced to more than one year. That number is higher than 24 states and all the U.S. territories.
A higher incarceration rate doesnt necessarily produce a reduction in violent crimes. According to Vargas Vidot, during the past 12 years, Puerto Rico has built 12% more square feet for prison facilities than for schools. By the end of 2003, Puerto Rico had put 301 out of every 100,000 residents in jail, according to the federal Department of Justice.
The U.S. mainland can serve as an example of how imprisoning more people doesnt help reduce crime. The U.S. mainland has the highest incarceration rate in the world (686 of 100,000), yet its murder rate (6.7 per 100,000) is still the highest among all industrialized nations.
Who are the people in Puerto Ricos jails? Statistics from the local Department of Corrections reveal that as of June 2003, 70% of inmates had used illegal drugs. Curiously, a vast majority (85.1%) werent classified as drug addicts, but as occasional drug users.
Vargas Vidot explained, for example, one person caught with one bag of heroin could be charged as a drug dealer, even if the drug was for personal use, and sentenced to seven years in jail.
To make matters worse, many agree the correctional system does more harm than good to the convict. José Taboada, president of the Puerto Rico Police Force Member Association, is one of them. "The correctional system doesnt rehabilitate prisoners. In fact, it does the opposite. Prisoners end up learning even more [criminal tactics]."
Taking this into consideration, wouldnt it be better to place the person from the example above in a drug-rehabilitation program instead of prison for seven years, ruining his or her record and annihilating his or her chances of getting his or her life back on track?
Another negative result of Mano Dura was by invading public-housing projects where drugs were sold and shutting down the illegal operation, drug traffic wasnt stopped, just relocated. "The only thing [invasion] achieved was to spread through the entire island what was once an easily identifiable activity," Vargas Vidot said. "This means that places in the countryside that were known as safe havens are now seeing not one, but many, drug puntos. The result was more widespread drug traffic, not progress and peace."
Despite opposing viewpoints, Toledo still full-heartedly defends the strategy. "We used to hear police wouldnt dare enter a public-housing project for fear of being shot. We have heard positive feedback from the residents of the projects. They say their quality of life has improved."
Even though Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá dubbed Mano Dura a mere campaign slogan, he said he will allow the police to raid public-housing projects again "if necessary." In addition, he didnt discard the possibility of once more using the National Guard.
Toledo told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that although he may not necessarily order the police to occupy public-housing projects, he could order intervention in them.
In addition, Toledo explained he has hired former Labor Secretary Frank Zorrilla to take care of labor issues affecting the police force, he will ask the Management & Budget Office to find sources of funds to give police officers a raise, and he will integrate the different offices related to outreach programs and community involvement.
As for education, he will reinstall the associate degree as the minimum requirement to become a police officer. He also will call for police officers to comply with continuing education so they can stay abreast of new technologies and tactics. In addition, he said he will call for classes that develop officers community-intervention skills as part of the requirements.
Toledo plans to restructure the entire department as well. "I dont dismiss making some [personnel] changes. I will retain those who work hard."
Impact of crime on islands image
While Toledo prepares to fight crime, bad news seems to be spreading faster than good news, judging from the amount of negative coverage in the U.S. mainlands media highlighting Puerto Ricos crime rate. Last year, a broadcasting station in Chicago televised a news series describing Puerto Rico as "the deadliest place in America." "San Juan sometimes resembles neighboring Haiti, but the enemy there isnt political and the threat is never-ending," said the television voice-over. An NBC station in New York also sent a reporter to San Juan and ran a weeklong report on the islands crime.
In November, USA Today published a story that read "40 police officers have been murdered during the past decade on the island of 3.8 million peoplemore than were slain in the states of Florida and New York combined, with a total population of 54.5 million, according to statistics compiled by the FBI."
Tourism and retail are two of the industries fearing the consequences of Puerto Ricos high incidence of crime. With bad news on local crime rates spreading fast, the consequences could be considerable.
In 2004, travel expert Peter Yesawich, chairman & CEO of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS Puerto Rico must address the crime issue for the tourism business to grow. "Here in Orlando, we increasingly have seen news about crime in Puerto Rico. [Crime] is an issue that has to be addressed," said Yesawich (CB July 4, 2004).
The Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association (PRHTA) announced at the time that although incidents involving tourists arent common, the industry was concerned about the impact this negative image could have on tourists decision to come to the island. Most, if not all, Internet tourism sites regarding Puerto Rico stress the islands problem with violent crime and advise tourists to use caution when spending time here, particularly in San Juan. Earlier this month, two visitors from Chicago were murdered during a shoot-out between cars on Baldorioty de Castro Avenue. Shoot-outs between cars have claimed the lives of several in recent months, including several members of former Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelós family.
A look at Frommers tourism website gives a clue as to what some tourists are thinking. One tourist who spent her vacation in Puerto Rico told the travel publication the island was "heaven and hellall rolled up into one tiny island." The hell part referred to the crime rate, and the woman even quoted her taxi driver who told her he could take her to several salsa clubs away from tourist spots, but he wasnt sure she would get back in one piece.
Moreover, this negative perception of Puerto Rico exists despite the fact that violent crimes against tourists are few and far between. The negative perception, however, hasnt translated into cancelled vacations on the island. "Crime rates and the negative portrayal of the island are a concern, but we are delighted we havent felt any repercussions," said outgoing PRHTA Executive Vice President Erin Benítez.
"In fact, the winter season turned out to be very good, and the outlook for spring is also positive," Benítez added. "Puerto Rico is experiencing a very good time for business, and the negative portrayal of the island isnt affecting us. People realize the issue of crime is basically the same here as in any other metropolitan area."
Retail executives in Puerto Rico have more reasons than those in tourism to worry about crime, with gunfire now spreading to shopping malls and other retail businesses. For example, during the summer of 2004, a shootout occurred inside the Home Depot store in Plaza del Sol, which left one man dead and five wounded. Another man was wounded during an argument in Plaza Carolinas Champs store. Plaza Las Américas was also the site of a shootout in 2003 that left one young man wounded.
Other retailers also have felt the crime wave. The president of a local supermarket chain told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS last month that armed burglars entered his office and "took everything." At the moment, he couldnt say what the value of the stolen goods was. Obviously shaken by the incident, he refused to go on record to describe what had happened.
In response to crime, the local United Retailers Association (CUD by its Spanish acronym) launched a campaign in December called Alto al Crimen (Stop Crime) with the intention of preventing and reducing crime. Through this campaign, CUD seeks to provide business executives with the necessary tools to confront violent situations, identify possible criminals, and recognize forged documents. It also seeks to find ways to better cooperate with police efforts.
Businesses investing more on security
Security and safety have become important to local businesses. Many are hiring private security guards and installing modern security systems that allow for remote surveillance and intense monitoring of traffic.
Ranger American, which offers security-guard services to Plaza Las Américas, Plaza del Sol, Belz Factory Outlet, Montehiedra Town Center, and others, has more than 17 years of experience serving the islands malls. "As more shopping malls continue expanding, Ranger American expects to increase its presence in them," said Ranger American President Juan Bravo.
Bravo explained, "Although there have been isolated incidents of violence in shopping malls, most shoppers still consider them to be safe places. Crimes committed in shopping malls are for the most part crimes against property, not people. My advice to shopping-mall executives is that they maintain a proactive security plan before crime happens."
Eric del Pino, general manager of Intelihomes, said business is flourishing. "Nowadays, when someone opens a store, he or she includes security systems in the initial budget. They see security as an investment." He said this is so even with businesspeople who havent been affected by crime in the past. "I wouldnt say businesses are actually afraid of crime. I just think they have greater awareness of crime because of media coverage. Instead of waiting for crime to happen, people are now preparing to prevent crime," Del Pino said.
More alternatives to fight crime are available
With crime news in Puerto Rico getting worse, the new government administration has plenty of work. The public is demanding crime-fighting strategies that reduce crime in the short, middle, and long terms.
The alternatives are vast and range from improving the police forces human capital and infrastructure to implementing the wide array of community-based programs that so many organizations have been recommending for years.
On the law-enforcement end, Taboada recommends improving the infrastructure available to officers. "We need financial resources to pay informants and improve the situation of undercover agents. As it is now, they risk their lives 150% [of the time] and, if they are killed, there isnt even a financial guarantee for the family left behind. Undercover cops dont make more money than other police officers, so why would anyone risk his or her life in such a job?"
He also made recommendations to improve execution. "About 90% of officers in the San Juan metro area live in far away towns. Lets say a police officer from outside the metro area is assigned to Barrio Obrero. The first thing to be done is to learn all the streets of Barrio Obrero before actually intervening in anything. The problem is that once police officers learn their way around Barrio Obrero they are transferred again, and a new officer is brought in. This just goes on and on."
Juan Sánchez, recently selected as the new chief of the United Forces of Rapid Action (known as FURA by its Spanish acronym), recommends focusing more on acquiring technology, teaching police how to use such technology, and implementing effective supervision of police officers. "It isnt a matter of increasing the number of police officers; its a matter of teaching them how to use the latest technology. At FURA, we are establishing a system that allows us to monitor the movement of yachts. The police need this kind of equipment," he said.
"We also need to improve police-officer supervision to reduce corruption. Many people have been promoted without having the necessary skills," Sánchez explained, adding that promotions should be based on merit and skills.
In addition, police officers should be allowed to focus on crime prevention and detection instead of clerical casework. Right now, there are thousands of police officers doing office work full-time, according to Toledo.
Police officers patrolling the streets also have a heavy clerical burden. For instance, many police officers must use their day off to go to court and follow up on cases. This causes many cases to be dismissed (with possible offenders hitting the streets again) because the police officer involved in the case couldnt show up. This also creates an unfair labor situation for police officers.
Taboada also would place emphasis on reactivating the Athletic Police League, which he said was dismantled during the Calderón administration. "The league provides a way for police to interact with the community. Also, police can visit schools and teach children and parents how to avoid delinquency."
"The trend all over the world is to make police interventions as nonviolent as possible," Vargas Vidot said. "Hitting people with a baton isnt going to create functional families. It would be more practical to teach police officers communication skills so they can become community leaders that people trust."
"Instead of persecuting at-risk children, why not allow the police officer to play a game of basketball and get to know them?" asked Vargas Vidot. That way, he said, police officers can become catalysts of positive change. Meanwhile, they would retain the authority to intervene if a crime is being committed.
Most important of all, Vargas Vidot recommends following the strategy used in Switzerland. Because a large number of crimes are related to drugs, he recommends addressing the drug problem with a focus on health and well-being instead of repression alone.
From 1970 to 1993, the Swiss city of Basel had, like all major European cities, an open drug scene with neglect, social decline, and public drug consumption. The adverse effects on the population were drug-related criminality, discarded syringes, and more.
Despite increased expenditure on this every year, the police failed to crack down on drug traffic and use, and prisons were overcrowded with drug users and drug delinquents. The drug policy previously pursued, which relied on repression and prosecution and a one-sided tendency to restrict the supply, was a failure.
As a result, in 1990, the Basel government resolved to bring this intolerable situation under control with a new concept called the four-pillar model. The pillars are: prevention, harm reduction, repression, and therapy. The model also called for an agreement between all political parties and ministries concerned.
The results are already showing. In Basel, drug addicts are being discovered early, counseled, and induced to give up taking drugs. In different parts of the city, there are three "shooting galleries," welfare centers with an injection room and cafeteria. About 450 addicts visit these institutions every day. Thanks to this initiative, there is no more public drug consumption in parks or public places in the city. Also, HIV and hepatitis levels have dropped; there are no homeless in the streets, public places, or under bridges; violent attacks have been reduced; and there are various employment programs where jobless drug addicts can obtain paid work on an hourly or daily basis, giving them a sensible daily occupation and improving their self-esteem.
Appropriate funding is required from the Legislature to help the administration get a handle on Puerto Ricos increasing crime rate. Community-based activities also are required to reduce the problem by shifting the basic policing approach away from responsive strategies and toward community collaboration and preemptive problem-solving.
There are other alternatives that can be applied immediately in Puerto Rico. "Schools should be open after 2 p.m., and they should become centers of social action. Teachers need to be better prepared. Leisure & entertainment options should go beyond going to a party that only offers an incentive to drink alcohol," said Vargas Vidot. After-school activities also can help reduce juvenile crime and gangs as well as drug use and teen pregnancy.
Federal Judge Héctor Lafitte recommends greater coordination between the local and federal government, courts, district attorneys office, and the Corrections Administration. Judge Lafitte said that often when he sees a repeat drug offender in his court, the criminal has had his or her hearings suspended dozens of times in local court. "In federal courts, suspending a criminal hearing is the exception; unfortunately, the same isnt true in local courts," he said. Judge Lafitte recommends applying a series of innovative strategies that have worked at the federal level to reduce crime in Puerto Rico. In an upcoming interview with CARIBBEAN BUSINESS, these strategies will be unveiled.
When well-implemented, each of these proposed enforcement and community efforts can produce positive results. No single approach can turn Puerto Ricos crime problem around, so several strategies must be applied. Local leaders must coordinate a comprehensive effort with all government resourcespolicing, parole, prosecution, prevention, drug treatment, better schools and housing, and business development. Only when law enforcement is viewed as an integral part of a fully accountable government structure will we be able to create strong communities resistant to crime in Puerto Rico.
In a follow-up article, CARIBBEAN BUSINESS will discuss specific short-term crime-fighting strategies with law-enforcement officers, federal & local court officers, and agencies that concentrate on criminal cases.
Police officers said to need better training to prevent crime
Police interaction helps combat crime, but a proactive and preventive approach that teaches police officers how to communicate and relate to people in the communities they serve would do a lot to prevent crime from happening in the first place. One problem many police insiders pointed out was that right now, to become a police officer, cadets are only required to take a three-month training.
"You cant learn much in just three months," said José Taboada, president of the Puerto Rico Police Force Member Association. "Police officers are like sponges soaking up all the problems of a community. They must be lawyers, social workers, and psychologists to the community, and they cant learn how to be all these things in only three months."
Taboada said sending an officer to the street after only three months of training is like "sending uniforms into the streets. That is only enough time to learn how to handle a gun and write a ticket."
José Vargas Vidot, president of Iniciativa Comunitaria, said officers nowadays receive some social training, but noted the course is taught by other police agents who havent been properly prepared either.
He said the local Police Department should look at educational initiatives, like those of New Mexico, where many officers are also paramedics, are taught how to negotiate effectively in critical situations, and even learn about sports, allowing for better interaction with the community.
Before 2002, to become an officer, police cadets were required to obtain an associate degree from the College of Criminal Justice or from any other properly accredited institution of higher learning.
In April of 2002, then-Gov. Sila Calderons anticrime plan gave the police superintendent the power to graduate cadets after only 12 to 14 weeks of training. This was allowed only if the cadet promised to complete an associate degree within two years after graduating.
P.R. & USVI Hidta has dismantled 462 drug-trafficking organizations since 1996
Puerto Rico was designated a High Intensity Drug Traffic Area (Hidta) in 1994. Hidta became fully operational in 1996 and, since then, has dismantled 462 drug-trafficking organizations (DTO). In calendar year 2004 alone, it dismantled 103 DTOs, said José Álvarez, director of the Hidta office for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).
"Hidta provides funds to bring local and federal authorities together," said Roberto Medina, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcements Office of Investigations. He explained that of the DTOs dismantled, some are very small and local while others are international organizations.
"Were trying to eliminate the entire [trafficking] process, from creation to warehousing to distribution," Medina explained. "Recently, we had a takedown case in which we worked with Colombian, European, and American authorities and literally tore out the entire organization by the roots. This was thanks to information received inside Puerto Rico and elsewhere."
In Puerto Rico and the USVI, DTOs account for trafficking of 110 to 150 metric tons of cocaine from Colombia using multiple transportation methods. Over 70% of it is destined for the mainland U.S., Canada, and Europe. Only about 20% of the drugs remain in the islands for local consumption. While local forces focus on eradicating internal traffic and use, Hidtas components tackle the international constituents.
"When you eradicate organizations of this magnitude, it will take a long time for another organization to replace it," Medina said. As a result, Medina explained, trends have shown a reduction in the quantities of drugs seized.
However, the fight against drug trafficking also needs to address demand issues. "We also must look at demand elimination by integrating education and treatment programs," Medina said, adding he doesnt know of such programs in Puerto Rico.
"The U.S. is beginning to be very successful [thanks to the programs]. The Office of National Drug Control Policy said that in two years the number of people using marijuana has been reduced by 400,000," Medina noted.
The Puerto Rico and USVI Hidta is headquartered in San Juan. It is one of the first five Hidtas to be established and has won five awards, among them one for being the outstanding Hidta in the nation.
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.