A string of brazen homicides in Puerto Rico, some in broad daylight, has shocked residents and drawn attention to the weakened state of local law enforcement on the island, which is growing as a hub for drug shipments.
Douglas Leff, the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Puerto Rico, told local press last week that the island is facing a “security crisis,” and that he has requested more personnel and resources from the U.S. mainland.
His comments come after two dozen homicides were logged during the first ten days of 2019, Univision reported. These included a morning shootout in the tourist zone of Isla Verde, which left one person dead and another injured. The shootout was caught on video, in which several rounds of gunfire could be heard.
In another incident, security cameras at a gas station captured a gunman in a ski mask who walked up to a white car and shot the driver through the window. And hip-hop artist Kevin Fret was gunned down as he rode his motorbike in San Juan.
With a population of just over 3 million people, Puerto Rico has a murder rate roughly four times that of the mainland United States, at about 20 per 100,000 people, similar to that of Chicago. Records show 641 people were killed on the island last year.
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The FBI's Leff said the agency’s intelligence indicates that gangs were largely behind the recent spate of daylight killings. Asked whether Puerto Rico was becoming a narco state, he replied that while the FBI doesn’t classify Puerto Rico as such, there are “acts that we need to confront because they raise people’s fears when they occur," according to El Vocero.
Jennifer González, the island's Resident Commissioner and non-voting member of Congress, also wrote a letter to the US Homeland Security and Justice departments, asking for more law enforcement resources.
She said that the “dire security conditions” are made worse by “high levels of absenteeism” within the island’s police force. She cited the police’s clearance rate, or solved crimes, at a “shockingly low” 23 percent.
InSight Crime Analysis
With Puerto Rico’s local authorities still reeling some 16 months after Hurricane Maria, the island is ripe for exploitation by gangs and transnational criminal organizations, which are increasingly using the island as a way station for drug shipments.
US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials say drugs account for some 60 percent of homicides there.
Over the past two years, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have made a string of large maritime drug busts around Puerto Rico. One-time cocaine seizures include several that ranged between 500 and 700 kilograms. In March 2017, a go-fast boat was caught with 1.6 metric tons of cocaine valued at $48 million.
"Dominican Republic-based traffickers commonly direct drug shipments to Puerto Rico, where they are partitioned into small units and sent directly to the Northeast, mainly through the U.S. postal system, parcel mail service, and couriers on commercial flights,” a DEA intelligence brief states.
Further evidence of how prevalent drug trafficking is on the island came from revelations that its main international airport was being used to move cocaine to the US mainland by at least two gangs. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) baggage screeners, private security personnel, airline staff, and even restaurant workers were implicated in helping to smuggle cocaine onto planes bound for cities including New York and Miami.
In 2017, some 66,000 pounds of narcotics were seized in or around Puerto Rico, more than any other year on record, according to González who has also asked for an official report about drug trafficking in the region.
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At the same time that violence and drug trafficking have increased on the island, Puerto Rico's police force has seen thousands of officers quit, because of low pay and poor benefits. Some 4,000 officers, or nearly a quarter of force, has left in the past five years, according to the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. Hurricane Maria only accelerated this process, driving officers, whose own families were suffering, to the US mainland.
The hurricane's long aftermath has opened up security gaps in which organized crime groups can thrive.
In her letter to security officials, González highlighted a 2019 Puerto Rico/US Virgin Islands High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Threat Assessment that said the hurricanes had “severely diminished the operational capabilities of local and federal law enforcement.”