Puerto Rico police struggle to curb crime in Hurricane Maria aftermath
Hurricane Maria ripped apart daily life in Puerto Rico but it hasn’t brought a halt to the crime that has long plagued the poverty-stricken island.
In the hard-scrabble neighborhood of Rio Piedras, Jessica Rojas was at work this week making sandwiches at a Subway restaurant — a cash-only operation because of the limited power supply — when two young gunmen dressed in black burst through the door demanding money.
“Esto es un asalto,” one yelled. “This is a robbery!”
Rojas alerted an off-duty cop working security in a back room. A gunfight erupted. Rojas cowered on the ground as one gunman was gravely wounded and the other escaped. Also wounded in the crossfire: a local prosecutor and his wife who happened to be dining inside.
“Things here are hot,” said Rojas, 42, a former Hollywood resident. “It’s not easy living without water and electricity, and it’s giving a lot of people [opportunity] to rob us. It’s getting worse. We need more police.”
More than a month after Hurricane Maria wrecked the island, Puerto Rico’s overwhelmed police force of 13,000 officers is struggling to contain crime, just as before — but now with longer shifts, against emboldened criminals and on streets cloaked in darkness.
“It’s easier to burglarize — there’s no alarms, no phone systems. It’s dark. The delinquents are taking advantage of the crisis that Puerto Rico is in,” said Puerto Rico Police Officer Heriberto Soto, during a night patrol Tuesday that included calls for a robbery shooting, homeless men torching the outsides of stolen cables to steal the copper inside and and a high-speed car chase of suspected gunmen.
And the future for law enforcement on the island is bleak. The department has lost about 4,000 officers in the past five years and, because of the island’s economic crisis, cannot count on fresh recruits anytime soon. Hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers, outside law-enforcement officers and private security guards are helping — temporarily — but robberies, murders and drug dealing have resumed at levels that would seem outrageous in mainland states but are tragically normal here.
In the month since Maria ravaged the island, there have been no fewer than 34 murders. Crime has largely returned to pre-storm levels, said Puerto Rico police superintendent Héctor Pesquera. Puerto Rico’s crime rate has been largely “out of sight, out of mind” for years in the eyes of mainland authorities, he added, who have given the island’s law-enforcement community precious few resources.
“We were in really dire shape before the storm,” Pesquera said of his staffing levels. “Now, certainly, we’re not going to be in any better position. In fact, it’s going to be the opposite.”
Crime in Puerto Rico, long an issue, has been exacerbated by a $74 billion debt crisis that left state institutions in shambles, hundreds of thousands unemployed and many residents leaving the island for Florida and other states. Puerto Rico’s finances have been supervised by a federal oversight board since 2016.
In the past, the island’s police department has also been marked by allegations of misconduct and occasional arrests for corruption. In 2011, before Pesquera was hired amid attempts at reform, the U.S. Department of Justice found a “long-standing” pattern of civil rights violations that were “pervasive and plague all levels” of the department.
Adding to the volatile mix: Puerto Rico has become a key transit point for the illegal drug trade, with cocaine and other drugs flowing through the island, fueling violence in cities and towns.
In April, federal authorities busted a $4 million drug trafficking ring based at San Juan’s international airport that agents said involved facility staff members, restaurant workers and airline employees who used garbage chutes and bathrooms to smuggle drugs onto planes. The group was led by a suspected Puerto Rican kingpin who kept a tiger as a pet, leading the feds to nickname him “Tony the Tiger.”
An island of 3.4 million people, Puerto Rico recorded 670 homicides last year, a marked increase from 2015, although still down from the peak of 1,164 in 2011. By contrast, Miami-Dade County, with a population of 2.6 million people, had 235 homicides in 2016.
And many more people are victims of assaults, muggings and burglaries. In the past week, Puerto Rican police have reported a series of car break-ins — including one in the parking lot of the convention center where government officials and journalists are stationed — along with the theft of dozens of gallons of fuel for a generator from a San Juan supermarket, and the shooting of four women at an intersection in the middle of the afternoon.
On Tuesday night, in a residential neighborhood in Río Piedras, a man was shot in the leg after he said a car full of robbers confronted him. The remote-control gate was open because of the lack of electricity. They made off with nothing — but one assailant lost his red Nike sneaker on the pavement.
“It happens daily — and now, even more,” said Soto, as he and partner José Baerga drove to the scene.
It was a typically muggy night in Río Piedras, a sprawling section of San Juan. For Soto and Baerga, the aftermath of the hurricane has only added challenges to an already tough job. Río Piedras used to have more than 60 officers on a shift. These days, even as the cops work 12-hour emergency shifts, the number of patrol officers on duty is typically 25 or so. Squad cars are old and lack laptops and dash-cams used by many patrol officers on the mainland.
The evening’s patrol took them to the usual places. At the plaza next to the Señora del Pilar Catholic Church, where sales of synthetic marijuana resumed within hours of the storm, dealers sat in lawn chairs and on buckets in the dark.
Three young customers rocked back and forth as they sat on the edge of a fountain, heads slumped, in such a stupor from the drug that not even the blare of a police siren stirred them. One of the users was only 14, Soto said.
“I’ve dealt with him before. It’s a shame. He’s just a kid,” said Soto, who has been with the department for 25 years.
Many buy cocaine on a street called William Jones, where the El Coquí bar is notorious for alcohol-fueled killings. Heroine users shoot up in squalid shacks in a vacant field known to police as “The Shooting,” and violent drug turf wars unfold in some of the neighborhood’s public housing projects.
When Soto and Baerga pulled into one pitch-black housing project, children still yelled out “¡Agua! ¡Agua! ¡Agua!” — the word for water — as a code to alert residents that cops have arrived.
The night included long stretches of quiet punctuated by flurries of calls and traffic stops. Just after midnight, an officer saw a suspicious white Hyundai Veloster. An informant had told police that a similar car was being used to transport firearms. The Hyundai screeched away, leading officers on a chase that reached more than 100 mph until it finally halted in front of Plaza Las Américas mall.
Officers surrounded the car. “Hands where I can see them! Up!” Soto yelled at the three young men in the car. “Turn off the car.”
With a bark, a police dog alerted the officers that a weapon was — or had been — inside the car. But a search revealed nothing.
“He probably threw it out during the chase. It went on for 15 minutes,” Soto said.
Despite the high-speed pursuit, the driver, who swore he didn’t hear the sirens or see the lights, was not arrested. Detectives would be assigned to follow up on the case.
Soto and Baerga climbed back into their car, back to patrolling the night for another six hours.
“Our officers are obviously tired. They have been running non-stop since Irma,” said Pesquera, the police superintendent. “They are very committed. They are very proud. This is their place. Being tired doesn’t hinder their work.”