National Guard ends police patrols in Puerto Rico

AP News
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Posted: Mar 15, 2011 5:47 PM
National Guard ends police patrols in Puerto Rico

Hundreds of National Guard troops in Puerto Rico were heading back to their civilian jobs Tuesday after spending more than a year helping police the island amid a soaring murder rate.

The Guard presence is no longer necessary because hundreds of recently graduated police cadets have now entered the 19,000-strong force, said the territory's police chief, Jose Figueroa Sancha.

Figueroa credited the Guard with helping reduce most crimes _ including offenses such as robbery, assault and rape _ by 11 percent last year.

"The work was done, it was carried out," he said. "It was extremely successful."

However, 2010 was Puerto Rico's second-deadliest year ever with 955 killings in the territory of nearly 4 million people. Only 1994 saw more homicides, with 995 that year.

The high murder rate appears to be continuing _ or even getting worse. Some 243 people have been killed so far this year, compared with 184 during the same period of 2010.

To combat that trend, Figueroa said, 22 of the new officers were sent directly to homicide divisions in three major cities, in a departure from the usual procedure. It normally takes at least a decade of experience before officers get such assignments.

"We had to reinforce that area immediately," Figueroa said.

Officials blame drug violence for the killings, including one incident last year when armed men sprayed a police helicopter with AK-47 fire, killing the civilian pilot and wounding an officer.

Guard troops were deployed in February 2010 to the capital, San Juan, and to other cities that were struggling with violent crime. A month later, more were sent to rural areas at the request of concerned mayors.

Capt. Edgar Vazquez, who oversaw a group of 200 troops operating in five cities, said their mission primarily involved accompanying police on patrols. He said uniformed soldiers wielding large guns may have scared residents, but their presence was successful in deterring most types of crime.

"Murder was the only area where we unfortunately could not be effective," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has questioned both the propriety and the effectiveness of the mission, saying police work should be left to civilian forces and guardsmen should focus on priorities like emergencies and natural disasters.

"We have constantly opposed the militarization of police," attorney Jose Gonzalez said. "There is a serious crime problem that has not been resolved with the presence of the National Guard. ... It has been ineffective."

Gov. Luis Fortuno ordered the withdrawal, which took effect Tuesday, saying it is time for police officers to retake full responsibility for fighting crime.

The National Guard was last deployed in Puerto Rico in 2004.