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Puerto Rico tackling fearful murder rate

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, Laviera’s was Puerto Rico’s 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, Laviera’s 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 Laviera’s 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 didn’t 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.

“You’re never going to see a headline: ‘This is how many murders were prevented,’ ” said Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s police superintendent, responsible for what is essentially an island-wide police force. By November, “175 fewer people were murdered in Puerto Rico this year. That’s an 18 percent drop. That’s huge. We’ll do another 175 next year and keep doing that until it’s 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 Sheriff’s 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 “cop’s 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.”

Pesquera blames politics and a lack of leadership in Puerto Rico for the problems that have plagued the police department, which last year was the subject of a blistering U.S. Department of Justice report that described an underpaid, untrained, “critically broken” force. While cops were accused of violating civil rights and helping protect drug dealers, shootings took place in crowded shopping centers and on highways.

Pesquera said he found police cruisers with 300,000 miles on them, flat tires and dead batteries. He had to order 16,000 pairs of pants because cop uniforms were largely frayed. Bulletproof vests had outlived their life expectancy.

Internal-affairs complaints dating back 12 years sat dormant, and police lacked the computers to run background checks on suspects.

But local law enforcement authorities argue that about 75 percent of the island’s murders are drug-related, and the drugs come in by air and sea — which is federal jurisdiction.

After complaints last year from the governor and the island’s representative in Washington, the feds began to take notice.

The Department of Justice teamed up with island prosecutors and police to create the Illegal Firearm and Violent Crime Reduction Initiative. In July, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited the island.

“She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘We’re going to help you,’ ” Pesquera said. “I don’t think she’s blowing smoke.”

Cutters deployed

The new cutters from Miami were lent to Puerto Rico, and employees for various federal agencies were deployed on temporary stints. The Department of Homeland Security launched task forces for drugs and guns coming in by mail and cargo.

By October, DHS said coordinated operations resulted in the seizure of more than 16,000 pounds of drugs and the arrest of more than 100 people.

“2011 was a bad year, no doubt about it,” said Joseph Campbell, the special agent in charge of the San Juan FBI office. “There are so many gangs here, we have to prioritize which are the most violent, which are most negatively impacting communi- ties.”

More than 500 people have been charged in federal court with crimes ranging from carjacking to home-invasion robbery. Federal agents charged one man who robbed a Burger King restaurant of less than $100.

Suspects who use automatic weapons with obliterated serial numbers, have prior felony offenses, or rob a place of business are being charged in federal court. In some cases, prosecutors have applied the Hobbs Act, which makes it illegal to affect interstate commerce.

That means people who were wanted for multiple murders in Puerto Rican courts are doing serious federal time for firearms violations, and are being held without bail while they await trial. The idea is to skirt the Puerto Rican courts, which allow bail even in murder cases.

New cooperation

Experts say bail discourages witnesses from cooperating. Now, more victims are cooperating with authori- ties.

The results have worked beyond expectations: The five districts where the project was launched — San Juan, Carolina, Bayamon, Caguas and Ponce — averaged a 23 percent drop in homicides.

“Some people could say that these are nickel-and-dime cases,” said José Capo, the assistant U.S. attorney in San Juan who is overseeing the initiative. “The charges we are filing for the most part have nothing to do with murders or drug trafficking. We’re looking for the most readily provable gun crime.”

The theory is that the people locked up for robbing stores, homes and cars are largely responsible for the murders. Drug dealers carjack innocent drivers because they need the cars for drive-by shootings, and addicts invade homes to score money for drugs.

“They tend to be extremely violent,” Capo said. “Law enforcement has been on the lookout for these individuals. They are suspected of multiple murders. We’re able, in a simple case, to just get them off the street.”

He cites the case of Carlos Morales García, who was released this summer after serving 15 years of a 40-year sentence for a 1994 massacre that left six people dead. He had 57 prior convictions, including four armed robberies and seven attempted murders, Capo said.

He recently pleaded guilty to possession of an automatic weapon, and will face 15 years in federal prison at his January sentencing.

Pesquera said the federal task force is making so many arrests that the jails have to be notified in advance to bring in transport planes to clear out space for incoming inmates. Underscoring the lack of federal resources, the U.S. attorney’s office had to borrow state prosecutors to handle the load.

“They have 12 of my prosecutors, 24 of my agents and 300 police. We have to loan to them. That explains itself,” said Puerto Rico’s attorney general, Guillermo Somoza. “They need to send more tools to patrol the air and water. Send planes or prosecutors or both.”

Somoza acknowledged that his office filed charges in just 350 murder cases last year, even though 1,135 people were killed. With a clearance rate of less than a third, authorities are putting their hopes on Pesquera to turn around the troubled police department.

But since Luis Fortuño, the governor who appointed Pesquera, lost the November election, it is unclear how much more time Pesquera has on the job. His original agreement called for one year, after which he would return to his Port of Miami job.

With just a few weeks left in the year, Puerto Rico has already logged almost 900 murders. Last weekend, 14 people were killed, even as outrage over the latest gruesome killing sparked a movement that spread on social media.

“There are few places where you feel safe,” said Luis Romero Font, who became a crime-fighting activist after the death of his son, who was killed in a robbery. “Puerto Rico has 4 million American citizens that have been forgotten by the federal government with regards to drug trafficking and crime. If this had happened in San Francisco, they’d have sent two divisions of the Army to resolve it.”