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Keeping Puerto Rico’s Ports And Airports Safe From Terrorist Attacks

Are U.S. Ports In Puerto Rico Vulnerable To Terrorism?

By MARIALBA MARTÍNEZ of Caribbean Business

July 21, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Prevention, deterrence, and protection are the three missions that agencies dealing with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have in common to prevent terrorist attacks such as those that occurred Sept. 11, 2001, on the U.S. mainland; March 11, 2004, in Madrid, and July 7, in London. A major gateway for cargo and passengers to the U.S. mainland, just how secure are Puerto Rico’s ports and airports?

U.S. security experts have come to believe terrorists are seeking not only to inflict death and destruction within the U.S., but also to cripple the country economically by targeting its trade. Puerto Rico is one of three borders the U.S. must protect given the threat of a terrorist event becoming more apparent at some point in the future. In 2004, more than 800,000 containers were handled at Puerto Rico’s Port of San Juan with another 800 million pounds of cargo passing through the island’s airports. It is imperative that state and federal agencies work together to minimize the risk of such a threat in Puerto Rico.

While containers have revolutionized the shipping industry, they are now a potential carrier for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Furthermore, if the Al Qaeda network is as sophisticated as some terrorism experts have come to believe, the U.S. can’t overlook the fact that it may have set its sights on container cargo transported from foreign countries.

From fiscal 2000 to 2001, the DHS awarded Puerto Rico $75.4 million in planning, equipment, training, citizen programs, law-enforcement prevention programs, and emergency-management performance grants. Administered by Puerto Rico’s Homeland Security Adviser Rosaida Meléndez, the grants are earmarked for security agencies’ specific programs.

"Before 9/11, this office was part of Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice (DOJ)," said Meléndez, the official contact between the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and DHS. "Funds initially were granted for investigation into the possibility of WMD entering the U.S. In 2000, funds began to flow in for equipment in case of a WMD situation, such as radioactivity preventive suits, boots, and radios. The scope of the grants also expanded from a reactive to proactive response."

By 2004, Meléndez’s office had been transferred from the DOJ to the Governor’s Office. DHS also became a one-stop entity where every department under its umbrella had to meet specific guidelines. These guidelines, however, were changed last week when new DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a six-point agenda that includes identifying the department’s priorities, in order of risk, to maximize security.

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS spoke with several state and federal agency officials regarding their roles in case of a terrorist event in Puerto Rico and the possibility of such an occurrence locally. The federal agencies included the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration. In addition, the executive directors of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority, Puerto Rico’s Homeland Security Office, and State Agency for Emergency & Disaster Management (SAEDM) were asked about the interaction between local and federal agencies.

According to FBI Special Agent Louis Feliciano, the Puerto Rico Police and Fire departments and the FBI would be the initial responders in case of a terrorist attack on the island. The three-stage sequence of response would be implemented simultaneously. The first would be to secure the scene, the second to initiate the criminal investigation, and the third would be consequence management.

"It depends on the situation and whether we are reacting to an event that could be identified as a terrorist attack," Feliciano said. "Usually, the police are the first to arrive at the scene and they secure the area until other law enforcement and emergency agencies arrive. The kind of event will determine which agency head becomes the incident commander. For instance, if the event occurred at the airport, it would be the Transportation Security Administration, while a street event would be handled by the local police."

Although the FBI will lead the criminal investigation if the event is determined to be a terrorist attack, this agency will work as part of a team that is already in place called the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). The JTTF consists of state and federal agencies that can help in the investigation of a terrorist attack, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration, Puerto Rico Ports Authority, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, U.S. Armed Forces, and Puerto Rico National Guard.

"The JTTF is an active task force housed within the FBI," Feliciano said. "We have a representative onsite from each agency that belongs to the group. In addition, monthly meetings are held where other agencies are invited to discuss particular threats or concerns about the island’s security. It is important that all state and federal agencies on the island work together in the event a terrorist attack does occur. We already have conducted emergency drills and successfully combined all agencies’ efforts. In the event of a terrorist attack, we are prepared to handle the situation."

At the state level, Puerto Rico SAEDM Director Nazario Lugo Burgos is responsible for the activation of the government’s emergency operation center. At this site, 54 interagency coordinators would be available to coordinate any services the government can provide such as food, shelter, medical assistance, rescue & search operations, debris removal, construction crews, and utility repairs (water, electricity, and communications).

"We are responsible for the coordination of all government resources before, during, and after an emergency," said Lugo Burgos. "Depending on the event, we select an incident commander such as the Police chief, Quality Control Board director, or Fire Department chief. In addition to protecting citizens’ lives, we evaluate the guidelines and supervise security for the Urban Train."

The SAEDM also is part of the National Incident Management System under the federal government. This uniform system assists during emergencies in states or territories, and the agency has instructors trained as first responders. SAEDM’s Urban Search & Rescue Task Force probably is one of the most visible volunteer rescue groups on the island since it participated in rescue missions during 9/11 and last year’s mudslides in the Dominican Republic.

"Puerto Rico’s government agencies are prepared to assist in any kind of emergency situation, although it depends on the magnitude of the events," said Lugo Burgos. "We can use government services to the maximum, but speculating about an undetermined terrorist attack would be inadequate at this point. Our 250 employees and 230 volunteer rescue workers are ready for the risks, but we must keep training for the unforeseen."

State and federal agencies working together

When President George W. Bush created the DHS in 2002, it was made up of 22 directorates. Agencies such as U.S. Customs, U.S. Immigration, and U.S. Border Protection were reorganized and their investigation divisions reassigned according to DHS needs. This trend is sure to continue now that Secretary Chertoff said he would be adding three new directorates plus an assistant secretary for Cyber Security & Telecommunications, a Chief Medical Officer, and the U.S. Fire Administration, among others.

U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) was created from the combined inspection divisions of the U.S. Customs, U.S. Immigration, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, and U.S. Border Patrol. Its mission is to manage, control, and protect the nation’s borders. For example, Customs Border Protection has worked closely since 2002 with Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, established to strengthen security across the supply chain with a trade member registry. Future security systems for technology will be part of the Advanced Trade Data Initiative, an effort to protect U.S. ports and borders by centralizing all information about incoming U.S. goods before arrival.

Keith McFarquhar, assistant director of Customs Border Patrol, described one of his most important responsibilities as ensuring Puerto Rico’s 10 million short tons of maritime cargo arrives in containers free of bioterrorism, agroterrorism, or WMD. Shipping containers now are being compared to the mythical Trojan horse, seemingly harmless until they land on our shores. It isn’t possible to open and examine each container that enters the homeland, so a sort of "selective security system" has been designed.

"We start with a foreign ship’s manifest, which must be submitted to our agency at least four days before the ship arrives on the island," said McFarquhar. "U.S. CBP-trained personnel will analyze the information, such as the ship’s make and construction, where it is coming from, where the crew is from, what kind of cargo it is transporting, and how much it weighs.

Once the information is filtered through our software programs, it is given a risk parameter. A decision then is made whether to allow the ship to enter the port, request additional information, board the ship before it enters our territorial waters, or deny it entrance." Once a vessel’s cargo is being unloaded, Customs Border Patrol personnel conduct site inspections with personal radiation pagers to detect radiation levels from containers. For stronger readings, radioisotope-detection devices (RIDD) are used to determine different types of radiation. Customs Border Patrol also has two mobile X-ray units to inspect containers.

"All containers that arrive from foreign countries are inspected in one form or another," said McFarquhar "From the time we analyze a ship’s manifest until it arrives at the port, depending on the risks that may have been identified, we carefully determine what kind of inspection the containers will undergo."

Another federal agency whose main role is to provide maritime security for the U.S. is the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector San Juan, to which Puerto Rico and the Caribbean are assigned, patrols 1.2 million square miles with 575 active-duty personnel, 75 reservists, and approximately 400 volunteers. They not only cover Puerto Rico, but also the Dominican Republic, the northern coast of Venezuela and Costa Rica, and 18 nations in the Greater and Lesser Antilles.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. J.G. Public Affairs Officer Eric Willis stated that to protect the U.S., "We must push our zone of security outward and extend our reach to a wide area in the Caribbean to keep a safe perimeter around the homeland area."

When asked about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the island, Willis said, "The soft underbelly of the U.S. is Puerto Rico, and we must have [security] controls as good as or better than on the U.S. mainland. The U.S. Coast Guard views a threat to Puerto Rico just as likely as one on the mainland and prepares for it equally."

Willis attends a daily morning briefing to discuss the events of the previous day’s patrols. Four helicopters go out every day to patrol Puerto Rico’s coastline along with the agency’s vessels, and it isn’t rare to have other U.S. Coast Guard vessels from different jurisdictions provide assistance for six- to eight-week deployments.

"We are protecting against a possible terrorist threat by behaving proactively in the shipping industry," Willis said. "But the general public is going to be the one that best assists and identifies the threats. It is the fishermen who have been working in the same areas for years and know what is going on. They will identify a small incident or find an item where it wasn’t before and reveal the source of the threat."

Protecting Puerto Rico’s ports

While Puerto Rico’s shipping industry feels confident about the ports’ security, a security committee composed of industry members meets periodically with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to follow up or be advised about risk situations. Since 9/11, the island’s cargo shipping carriers have invested more than $20 million to secure their terminals, equipment, and personnel.

Roberto Lugo, former president of the Puerto Rico Shipping Association, said, "There are a lot of requirements the maritime and air transportation shipping sector must comply with, and it seems to be yielding positive results. It is relatively simple to penetrate countries that aren’t exposed to terrorist threats with the intent to do harm, but Puerto Rico isn’t that kind of country. We have a lot of regulations that protect us."

The Puerto Rico Ports Authority has invested more than $20 million in the past four years to secure its maritime and air transportation locations. Ports Director Fernando Bonilla is counting on a sophisticated surveillance-camera system being installed around San Juan Harbor’s perimeter. At $6 million, the system is close to 70% installed and has 156 cameras, 20 of which will have infrared night vision, that eventually will be positioned in strategic points around the harbor.

"We are finishing construction of the fiber-optic loop around the harbor and still have to install five towers to complete our connection," Bonilla said. "We hope to start operation by late September or early October with about 70% of the system. Since the cameras will be monitored 24/7, the Puerto Rico Police Department has assigned 10 agents to monitor the cameras and we will assign another 14."

To achieve prevention, deterrence, and protection–the three missions of security agencies–Bonilla has added a fourth element he calls redundancy. "Our cameras also will be linked to the Police Department so they can feed from the events that occur around the harbor. We also are integrating this system with our current security systems, such as Ports Authority police patrols and other private companies’ surveillance-camera systems that we also can monitor. In addition, we count on police, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Customs & Border Protection to safeguard the port area."

In 2004, the Ports Authority, as well as all federal, state, and private companies in the island’s shipping industry, had to submit a master plan detailing their security measures to the DHS. The Ports Authority master plan had to include security plans for all companies and agencies doing business in the ports area. Considering its security budget has spiraled from around $4 million before 9/11 to more than $20 million in 2004, it is reassuring the plan was approved by the DHS.

Part of the Ports Authority investment in security measures since 9/11 was the establishment of a specialized squad of agency employees trained to handle large-scale emergencies such as bioterrorist attacks at the ports or airports. The group has been certified by FEMA and other government-authorized safety companies. In addition, the group is qualified to assist the Environmental Quality Board’s emergency team when hazardous spills occur.

An arsenal of security measures also is being considered and deployed to protect against terrorist strikes–from X-ray machines in container terminals to transponders inside containers that would detect whether they were opened during transit. These devices would broadcast a signal via satellite to security personnel at sea or at the ports.

Concerns about air transportation

After 9/11, U.S. security agencies turned their sights to making air travel safe. Cars weren’t allowed to approach terminals during certain periods, curbside baggage or flight check-in was banished, identification was required at different checkpoints, and passengers and bags became hostage to a number of system screenings, actions to which travelers submitted for the sake of feeling safe in the sky once again.

"We are in the process of increasing our camera-surveillance system at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport," said Bonilla, who also has Ports Authority police spread throughout the airport along with state police. "Once again, we depend on the redundancy of camera systems we don’t operate, but by private airlines and the Transportation Security Administration. Our cameras are installed all over the airport while the other companies and agencies monitor specific areas. We all work together to make sure security is tight."

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created in 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its mission is to protect the nation’s transportation systems, including aviation, rail, mass transit, and highways. In 2002, TSA assumed responsibility for security at the nation’s airports and of its federalized work force.

Marlene Hunter was TSA director until April when she retired. Former Ports Authority Executive Director José Baquero, who went to work at a TSA agency in Orlando, Fla., was appointed last week to lead Puerto Rico’s regional TSA offices. With extensive experience and knowledge about the island’s shipping industry, Baquero should insert himself into the day-to-day events with no problem.

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS talked to TSA spokesperson Lauren Stover, who seemed optimistic about the different agencies’ security efforts, but admitted, "Once you have seen one airport, you have seen only one airport. Still, we are exponentially more secure than before 9/11, thanks to several layers of security measures from curbside to cockpit. We have thousands of [screening] agents and one of the world’s best canine programs to search explosives. We are training crews in self-defense and putting pilots through intensive training and psychological programs to allow them to carry guns in the cockpit. Now, every cockpit has a reinforced door.

"In the event of a terrorist attack, TSA would work with DHS to take the appropriate measures to respond and recover," Stover said. "With the heightened security in the airport, the current approach is based on threat assessment. The information we receive will put us ahead of any event to prevent it from happening."

TSA administrates the No Fly list, which determines the individuals who will be stopped and screened in more detail as they pass through an airport. This list is one of the key reasons for long delays during peak flying times, and DHS Secretary Chertoff said last week he wants to speed up the screening process by using more precise information, such as date of birth, to automatically clear low-risk travelers.

In June, TSA announced it would start implementing a $6.9 million explosives-detection program for passenger screenings in 14 cities, including San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. In July, TSA installed the first of 44 machines in Baltimore; Boston; Gulfport, Miss.; Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla.; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Miami; New York (JFK); Phoenix; Providence, R.I.; Rochester, N.Y.; San Francisco; and San Diego. By the end of September, TSA will complete installation of this technology in Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas (DFW); Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Newark, N.J.; New York (La Guardia); Palm Beach, Fla.; Pittsburgh; San Juan; and Washington, D.C. (Dulles and Ronald Reagan National). By January 2006, another 100 machines will be installed at the U.S.’ largest airports. Another $80 million will be used to purchase 43 new in-line explosive-detection systems to screen checked luggage behind ticket counters.

Other security technologies on the rise include biometric ID systems with fingerprint, face, and iris recognition; 10-point fingerprint identification in passports for foreigners entering the U.S.; RFID technology (a chip embedded on a tag) that tracks the location of documents, materials, and people; and radiation monitors in cargo containers at sea, along with spectroscopic portal monitors at marine terminals.

Still, detecting threats isn’t always as simple as screening individuals in an airport or containers arriving from overseas. Another new frontier is underwater and, for any airport near a body of water, as is our own Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, security poses another challenge.

The FBI has been investigating reports from as far back as three years ago that claim Al Qaeda operatives were being trained to scuba dive and blow up ships at anchor, power plants, bridges, depots, or other waterfront targets such as airports. Last year, Air Force Gen. Ed Eberhart, retired commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command & U.S. Northern Command, said the U.S. had a long way to go to shield itself from seaborne attacks. He mentioned the possibility of terrorists sailing into a harbor with explosives or WMD, or launching an unmanned aerial vehicle or cruise missile from a distance. The ultimate response: deterrence and prevention.

Street sensors and detection

Security surveillance in buildings, on streets, and at airports and entertainment areas quickly are becoming assets for homeland security. While the 9/11 terrorist attacks had to be slowly tracked to airport-surveillance cameras and passports, the Madrid and London terrorists were identified within hours after the bomb blasts by using cameras on the streets and cellphone records. If anyone has or had any concerns about surveillance cameras and invasion of privacy, the matter may become a nonissue when threats of terrorist events are present.

There are approximately 4.2 million surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom, most of them concentrated in London and other major cities. With a Briton being sighted an average of 300 times a day, the term "Big Brother" is moving to the forefront by critics. For those citizens and law-enforcement authorities who depend on camera feeds to help investigate crime, the argument between both parties escalates proportionately as the crime rate goes down.

In Puerto Rico, the installation of surveillance cameras is a 21st-century activity. In the early 2000s, the municipality of Bayamón was one of the first to solicit proposals for a surveillance system for several areas, including high-crime vicinities and other regions where police patrol was difficult. Most recently, Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marín approved the installation of surveillance cameras in various areas of the municipality. Both municipalities have vouched for the good results obtained from the surveillance system, which has reduced crime rates, increased crime solving, and acted as a crime-prevention tool.

Avant Technologies, a Puerto Rico technology company with several branded products to its name, including computer systems, developed and installed the surveillance system in Caguas. "We have developed a complete surveillance system based on digital cameras, unique to our island, which I also am exporting," said Luis Ramírez, president & founder of Avant Technologies. "We have thousands of cameras installed for a number of private- and public-sector clients and have seen as much as a 40% decrease in crime. What is most important is that our systems can be integrated with different security systems [whether private security agencies or DHS] to monitor larger regions."

Ramirez’s systems are available for 24/7 monitoring or, for what is described as an exception, when an alarm or a panic button is pressed or an unidentified person enters a secure area. "Our cameras can be as far away as 500 meters, and we still can clearly distinguish what is happening or identify a perpetrator. Regarding invasion of privacy, the systems aren’t equipped with audio, so we aren’t violating private citizens’ rights, particularly if they are in public places. With the rise of retail shrinkage from employees at $15.8 billion and shoplifting losses at $10.7 billion, the need to install surveillance cameras soon will be common place."

While terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland, Madrid, and London have proved there is no such thing as being 100% safe from terrorism, Customs Border Patrol Assistant Director McFarquhar says the agency is working hard to prevent such an attack in Puerto Rico.

"I am so confident of the Customs Border Patrol capacity [to fight terrorism] that as sure as I come to work every day to do my job, I have full confidence every agency employee does the same. With our personnel training and the technology available, I would hope to fulfill our goal–which is to make Puerto Rico impenetrable to terrorists. If not, we would be playing into the hands of the terrorists, which would be to be terrorized by them. I can't say I am not afraid something could bypass our border, but this is what I am paid to do, to prevent it," McFarquhar said.

Is your company ready for an unexpected emergency?

Have you made appropriate plans to secure your company in case of a terrorist event in Puerto Rico? No matter the probability of such an event occurring on the island, there are several measures to protect your business from this unthinkable event as well from the high possibility of being hit by a hurricane or tropical storm.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a website with information about emergency preparedness for businesses at Common sense information includes preparing an emergency plan for a number of threats such as biological, chemical, nuclear, radiation, or natural disasters.

Among the DHS suggestions, companies are recommended to review their business-insurance coverage. Lack of sufficient coverage after a disaster can lead to a major financial loss. The plan also must include how to pay creditors and employees and provide for the principal’s income if business is interrupted. Records required by insurance providers also must be located and stored in a safe place.

Business owners also can be prepared to secure their physical structures. Installing fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, along with marking emergency exits, are government regulations that must be obeyed. Other issues to consider are fire sprinklers, alarm systems, closed-circuit television, access control, security guards, and other types of security systems. The threat of a chemical hazard also must be considered if there is a mail-handling department. Mail-room employees should be provided enough training to recognize such warning signs as misspelled words, no return addresses, excessive use of tape, and strange odors.

Essential equipment for a business’ continued operation must be identified and a plan designed specifying how to repair or replace vital pieces. A solution would be to keep extra parts not only of key equipment but of supplies and materials needed to conduct business. Finally, a plan to conduct business from another site may be needed if the building isn’t usable during an emergency.

To plan for long-term utility interruptions, a company should be equipped with portable generators and communications systems such as laptops, cellphones, and walkie-talkies, along with food storage or refrigeration if this is a concern for your business. Remember, any documents in a computer will require a secondary access point if it is an Internet-based medium.

Protecting a building’s inside air is critical for any emergency plan during an earthquake, biological attack, or the release of a dirty bomb. To prevent the spread of microscopic particles into the air, knowledge of a building’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems is critical. Consider the highest filtration-efficiency systems available and learn how to shut down and secure outdoor air intakes.

Cybersecurity for a company’s data and information is critical during emergencies. To reduce vulnerability to attack, use up-to-date antivirus software and don’t open email from unknown sources. Businesses also should use firewalls to keep out unwanted or dangerous traffic. Passwords should be of eight characters, mixing numbers and lowercase letters. Remember to regularly back up your computer data, keeping one version offsite.

During or after an emergency situation, a company should be able to immediately access its master plan. Remember, employees and coworkers are a company’s most important and valuable asset. They also will have certain needs that need to be met to recover from the emergency, including ensuring their family’s well-being. Only then will they be able to re-establish routines that return them to personal recovery.

Grants to Puerto Rico from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Fiscal Years 2000 to 2005


Type of Grant: Allocation


Equipment: $1,067,000

Planning: 200,000

Total: $1,267,000


Equipment: 1,120,000

Total: 1,120,000


Equipment: 4,677,000

Exercise: 217,000

Total: 4,894,000


Equipment: 6,125,000

Exercise: 1,531,000

Training: 459,000

Planning: 612,000

Total: 8,727,000


State Homeland Security Program: 25,970,000

Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention: 7,706,000

Citizen Corps: 539,000

Total: 34,215,000


State Homeland Security Program: 16,344,796

Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention: 5,943,562

Citizen Corps: 207,497

Emergency Management Performance Grant: 2,673,229

Total: 25,169,084

Grand Total: $75,392,084

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Domestic Preparedness Support

Emergency Kit

Have at least a three-day supply of the following



Battery-powered radio


Extra batteries

First-aid kit

Whistle (to signal for help)

Dust / filter masks

Moist towelettes

Wrench / pliers (to turn off utilities)

Can opener

Plastic sheeting / duct tape (to seal room)

Garbage bags / plastic ties

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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