Puerto Rico fears post-Maria mur­der surge: 11 days, 32 slain

The Maui News - - TODAY’S PEOPLE - By DAN­ICA COTO The Associated Press

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico — Be­fore the sun rose on the first day of 2018, some­one called 911 to re­port the charred, bul­let-rid­dled body of a man with a snake-like tat­too on his left hand, ly­ing be­side a road in the Puerto Ri­can town of Vega Baja.

The next day, two men were found dead with their feet and hands bound in Baya­mon, a work­ing-class city south­west of the cap­i­tal. An­other man was shot to death be­fore dawn in nearby Vega Baja while try­ing to stop thieves from steal­ing his gen­er­a­tor.

Thirty-two peo­ple have been slain in Puerto Rico in the first 11 days of the year, dou­ble the num­ber killed over the same pe­riod in 2017. If the surge proves to be more than just a tem­po­rary blip, Jan­uary could be the most homi­ci­dal month on the island in at least two years, adding a dan­ger­ous new el­e­ment to the island’s re­cov­ery from Hur­ri­cane Maria, its worst dis­as­ter in decades.

While the num­ber of homi­cides did not im­me­di­ately spike in the weeks after the hur­ri­cane struck on Sept. 20, po­lice and in­de­pen­dent ex­perts say many killings ap­pear at least partly re­lated to its af­ter­ef­fects.

The storm has plunged much of the island into dark­ness, in­creased eco­nomic hard­ship and con­trib­uted to a sick­out by po­lice, all fu­el­ing law­less­ness. What’s more, of­fi­cials say a turf war has bro­ken out among drug gangs look­ing to grab ter­ri­tory after the storm’s dis­rup­tion.

“Hur­ri­canes af­fect ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing crim­i­nals,” said crim­i­nol­o­gist Jose Raul Cepeda.

Al­ready bank­rupt, the island’s over­whelmed gov­ern­ment has fallen be­hind with mil­lions of dol­lars in over­time pay­ments owed to po­lice of­fi­cers, who have be­gun call­ing in sick in big num­bers to protest. The sick­out has taken about 2,000 po­lice off the street each day in a ter­ri­tory that has 13,600 of­fi­cers. It has forced more than a dozen po­lice sta­tions to close for sev­eral hours to a cou­ple of days dur­ing the hol­i­day pe­riod be­cause of a lack of of­fi­cers. No ar­rests have been made in the 32 killings this year.

Maria, which hit as a Cat­e­gory 4 storm, de­stroyed much of the island’s elec­tri­cal grid. For those po­lice on duty, the streets are darker and more dan­ger­ous be­cause power has been re­stored to only 60 per­cent of cus­tomers in the U.S. ter­ri­tory. Drug gangs are fight­ing to re-es­tab­lish ter­ri­tory they lost in the dis­rup­tion from Maria, which pushed thou­sands from their homes and left en­tire neigh­bor­hoods un­in­hab­it­able for weeks.

Po­lice Chief Michelle Her­nan­dez re­signed Mon­day after only a year on the job, and lo­cal and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties are rush­ing from meet­ing to meet­ing to de­bate how to best pro­tect 3.3 mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans, es­pe­cially those still liv­ing in the dark.

“This has been dev­as­tat­ing,” said Ra­mon Santiago, a re­tiree who lives less than a block from where three bod­ies were dis­cov­ered Sun­day near a basketball court. “You can’t sleep peace­fully in so much dark­ness.”

Puerto Rico’s homi­cide rate is roughly 20 killings per 100,000 res­i­dents, com­pared with 3.7 per 100,000 res­i­dents on the U.S. main­land. In the last two years, Puerto Rico has seen an av­er­age of 56 homi­cides a month, a rate that held through De­cem­ber. Then after New Year’s, the killings started ac­cel­er­at­ing.

A man was shot Jan. 3 by a se­cu­rity guard while try­ing to rob a bak­ery. Two dou­ble homi­cides were re­ported Jan. 8 — two men found shot to death in a car near an up­scale re­sort on the north coast and two other men dis­cov­ered sprawled on the street near a public hous­ing com­plex on the west coast. Five killings alone were re­ported Mon­day, in ad­di­tion to three peo­ple wounded by gun­fire dur­ing a shootout that night in the parking lot of a strip mall in Baya­mon. This week, po­lice say, the son of a for­mer judge was killed after try­ing to write down the li­cense plate num­ber of a car whose oc­cu­pants were fir­ing a gun.

“The lack of po­lice is in­creas­ing Puerto Rico’s safety is­sues,” said leg­is­la­tor De­nis Mar­quez, who was mugged at gun­point last month. “Ev­ery­body is feeling that in­se­cu­rity.”

Be­sides polic­ing and get­ting the lights back on, he said, the gov­ern­ment needs to ad­dress long-stand­ing is­sues such as so­cial in­equal­ity on an island with a 10 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate, where nearly 45 per­cent of its in­hab­i­tants lived in poverty be­fore the hur­ri­cane.

More im­me­di­ately, the post-storm con­di­tions have fu­eled a deadly strug­gle over drug gang ter­ri­tory, said Fer­nando Soler, vice pres­i­dent of a po­lice of­fi­cers’ ad­vo­cacy group.

“There’s a war over the con­trol for drugs,” he told The Associated Press. “They are tak­ing ad­van­tage of all the sit­u­a­tions oc­cur­ring in Puerto Rico. There’s no power and they be­lieve there’s a lack of po­lice of­fi­cers . . . . Crim­i­nals are tak­ing care of busi­ness that was pend­ing be­fore the hur­ri­cane.”

In­spec­tor Elexis Tor­res heads a unit that is in­ves­ti­gat­ing eight homi­cides in a ju­ris­dic­tion that in­cludes the work­ing-class city of Carolina near Puerto Rico’s north coast, bor­der­ing the island’s main air­port.

One of Puerto Rico’s largest cities with nearly 160,000 peo­ple, Carolina had the triple homi­cide re­ported Sun­day; a mo­tel em­ployee and a friend were found slain Tues­day in neigh­bor­ing Tru­jillo Alto. Like nearly all the killings this year, they in­volve men in their 20s who were shot to death. Tor­res said he sus­pects both cases are drug re­lated.

He wor­ries the num­ber of killings will only in­crease as crim­i­nal gangs en­ter into cy­cles of re­venge.

“Those vic­tims likely be­longed to some or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Tor­res said of the triple homi­cide. “This can have con­se­quences.”

Cepeda, the crim­i­nol­o­gist, said drug traf­fick­ers have been en­ter­ing ri­val ter­ri­to­ries to in­crease sales and re­cover losses after the storm dis­rupted their busi­ness.

Hur­ri­cane Maria caused an es­ti­mated $95 bil­lion in dam­age, with 30,000-plus jobs lost in an econ­omy that was al­ready strug­gling from an 11-year-old re­ces­sion.

The last time Puerto Rico saw a spike in vi­o­lent crime was in 2011, when a record 1,136 killings were re­ported on an island of nearly 4 mil­lion peo­ple. Puerto Rico had seen a drop in killings, to 700 in 2016 and 679 last year.

Hec­tor Pes­quera, sec­re­tary of the newly cre­ated Depart­ment of Public Safety, met this week with top po­lice of­fi­cials and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.

“We’re in a process of anal­y­sis and of com­mit­ted work to fight crim­i­nal­ity in Puerto Rico,” he said.

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