Drug trafficking in top tourist destination Puerto Rico has grown to the point that the island may be turning into a narco-state.
El Nuevo Dia, the largest local newspaper, says the label fits: there’s a breakdown of law and order, and parts of the island operate outside the government’s control. Last year, Puerto Rico experienced a record murder rate, most of it drug-related.
How did things get this way? It’s partly an accident of geography. Puerto Rico lies within a prime Caribbean shipping route called the Mona Passage, which makes it an attractive destination for South American and Dominican drug smugglers looking for an entry point into the US. Because Puerto Rico is an American territory, shipments headed for the mainland don’t go through US Customs checks.
The situation worsened in 2009, when the US began a new crackdown on drug trafficking along the Mexican border. Some of that traffic was diverted through the Caribbean. Add to that Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate of 13.2 percent – higher than any American state – and you’ve got a perfect storm.
Most of the drug violence is related to turf wars over drug distribution points in the island’s public housing projects. But it has spilled over into public areas. Puerto Rico’s police force seems overwhelmed and has also experienced incidents of corruption – see this shocking video from 2010 on how dozens of PR police officers were arrested, accused of aiding drug dealers.
In a speech this week, Republican Governor Luis Fortuno pledged to fight crime by giving local judges the authority to deny bail to anyone accused of first-degree murder or killing a public official. As it stands now, only federal judges have that power. Fortuno also wants to create special courtrooms that would speed up murder trials.
But local residents interviewed by El Nuevo Dia weren’t impressed.
Victor Santiago, a retired salesman from Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second city said: “It’s like a fanciful novel, like Fortuno is in a country of marvels.” Santiago said he heard the same promises from Fortuno before he became governor, and he was disappointed.
Students at the University of Puerto Rico had a similar reaction. “It was a message that didn’t zero in on specifics, only superficial details,” said political science major Erika Morales. In particular, she wanted to know how Fortuno was going to reinvigorate the island’s beleaguered police force.
Meanwhile Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress has asked US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske to set up a Caribbean Border Initiative that would direct money and manpower towards the island’s drug war. But the federal government has made no firm commitments yet.
Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, with the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, is waiting. In a commentary in the Christian Science Monitor, she says Puerto Ricans deserve the same protection other American citizens do – especially since it’s the mainland’s appetite for cocaine and heroin that fuels the drug trade on the island.
For in-depth coverage of Governor Fortuno’s speech in Spanish from El Nuevo Dia click on the link below.