Killings rattle a Puerto Rico struggling to recover
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Liz G. Rodriguez Quinonez grew up schooled in being able to throw her body to the floor in the middle of the night, in the event that stray bullets from a nearby shootout came crashing through her window.
But it was only this past fall when Rodriguez, who operates a food truck in a town just east of the Puerto Rican capital, experienced her first murder: Standing by the stove in her truck one morning in September, she heard a series of pops, then screaming, and realized that the man who was the intended target of the gunfire was standing right behind her truck. She ducked – thanks to the training from her youth – but there was no hope for the man, who died only a few feet away.
It was not yet noon.
“I saw the dead body. He was around 30 years old. It was horrible,” Rodriguez, 30, said with a shudder.
Puerto Rico has long had one of the highest murder rates in the country, almost all of it attributable to gang violence. But a recent string of brazen daylight killings, some of them captured on video and widely shared on social media, have shaken the population and worried local and federal law enforcement officials who thought they had seen everything in the roiling, populous city of San Juan.
On Jan. 6, several men engaged in a morning shootout on the service road of a major thoroughfare in Isla Verde, near the airport, leaving one man dead. On Wednesday morning, a gas station security camera in Dorado captured a gunman in a ski mask who calmly walked up to a Honda, fired at its driver and left.
On Thursday, Kevin Fret, an openly gay musician with a large social media following, was gunned down as he rode a motorbike before dawn in San Juan.
The case that barely made the news: A 10-year-old boy had been shot in Coamo the night before.
With headlines reporting that 22 people had already lost their lives violently in the first couple weeks of 2019, Gov. Ricardo Rossello convened a meeting of the heads of all the commonwealth and federal law enforcement agencies, who promised a crackdown. The public safety secretary dismissed the notion of a crime wave, even as police associations were calling for his ouster.
Puerto Rico, in the wake of bankruptcy and the devastation of Hurricane Maria, is enduring a sinking economy and a mass exodus. And while the murder rate is far lower than it was at its peak seven years ago, the decline offers little consolation when nearly 5,000 police officers have quit in the past few years and even a former police chief says she is afraid to leave her house after dark.
Twenty-five years after Puerto Rico made headlines by sending its National Guard to patrol urban neighborhoods, the island is still one of the most dangerous places in the world, even with steady declines in violent crime.