SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Francisco Laviera was shot to death in broad daylight when he tried to help a neighbor who was being beaten with a pipe.
On an island with a per-capita murder rate six times higher than the rest of the United States, Lavieras was Puerto Ricos 823rd killing this year.
Unlike the highly publicized murders of boxing champion Hector Macho Camacho or that of the publicist who was robbed and burned alive this month, Lavieras death did not spark social movements on Facebook or Twitter.
No one will ever be able to stop these killings, lamented Juan Quiles, a police officer who guarded Lavieras bullet-strewn murder scene one evening last month.
But despite victims like Laviera who died in a brutal outburst over money or drugs, local and federal authorities in Puerto Rico on a crusade to lock up violent criminals are trying to keep a different count, one much more difficult to quantify: the number of people who didnt die.
After coming under scathing criticism for a lackluster response to a surge in the Caribbean drug trade and the violence that accompanied it, the federal government has teamed with local law enforcement to target gangs and robbers caught with guns. The feds appear to have finally found a strategy to tamp the unprecedented murder rate, which succeeded where air patrols and cutter deployments could not: locking up the bad guys.
Youre never going to see a headline: This is how many murders were prevented, said Hector Pesquera, Puerto Ricos police superintendent, responsible for what is essentially an island-wide police force. By November, 175 fewer people were murdered in Puerto Rico this year. Thats an 18 percent drop. Thats huge. Well do another 175 next year and keep doing that until its at a manageable level.
In 2011, Puerto Rico broke its own record by logging 1,135 homicides 30 killings per 100,000 residents.
Pesquera, the head of security for the Port of Miami, was tapped in April by the outgoing governor of Puerto Rico to tackle the soaring murder rate. A former head of the Miami FBI office and Broward Sheriffs Office administrator, Pesquera is best known for rounding up a ring of Cuban spies, making Fidel Castro his No. 1 nemesis.
In Puerto Rico, he is described as a cops cop who minces no words in describing the daunting task he encountered, which he attributes to more than a decade of neglect, from San Juan to Washington, D.C.
Law enforcement authorities and politicians in Puerto Rico say the federal government abandoned the island of four million U.S. citizens because it lacks political muscle. As federal resources for battling drug traffic were being sent to the Mexican border and even South Florida, the amount of cocaine seized by the Coast Guard in the San Juan sector increased fivefold this year.
Meanwhile, 15 percent of Customs positions in Puerto Rico remained unfilled, and a Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine office was shuttered due to budget constraints, according to a congressional hearing earlier this year.
When the Coast Guard commissioned new state-of-the-art, fast-response cutters, they went to Miami and Key West.
It was worse than I expected. I expected problems, but not of this magnitude, Pesquera said. We are American citizens. We deserve better. We should not be panhandling.