Puerto Rico poised to surpass homicide record

AP News
Posted: Nov 16, 2011 4:39 PM
Puerto Rico poised to surpass homicide record

Puerto Rico is having its deadliest year on record as authorities struggle to control a rampant drug war on the U.S. Caribbean territory.

Police said Wednesday that three people died overnight in separate incidents, raising the year's homicide toll to 995 on the island of 4 million people. That matches a 1994 record with six weeks left to go in the year.

Local authorities say 70 percent of the killings are drug related, and Pedro Toledo, who was chief of the police department in 1994, said violence has increased partly because drug traffickers are now being paid with weapons instead of money and because many youths in public housing complexes see selling drugs as a quick way to make money.

"We have a generation of young people who are violent, who take a gun and shoot, killing indiscriminately because they are expendable," Toledo said. "This is a generation that is going to be very hard to straighten out."

Both the unemployment and homicide rates in Puerto Rico are higher than in any U.S. state. The island's rate of 22.5 killings per 100,000 people is double that of Louisiana, according to a recent federal report.

Police make an arrest in only 43 percent of killings, compared with a U.S. national average of 66 percent, according to the report, which also accused the police department of corruption, unlawful killings and civil rights violations.

An October survey of 1,000 people published this week by the newspaper El Nuevo Dia found that Puerto Ricans are more concerned about crime than any other issue and 83 percent say they now limit the amount of time spent outside their home. Fifteen percent said they have bought a gun, according to the survey that had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

That has provided campaign fuel to opposition legislators seeking to unseat the ruling New Progressive Party in next year's elections.

"Where are the priorities of this government? Where are the anti-crime plans?" asked territorial Sen. Cirilo Tirado of the Popular Democratic Party.

Gov. Luis Fortuno told reporters he is using all resources available to fight crime.

"We are tired of these crooks who want to impose the law of the jungle on the street," he said.

As concern about the killings rose, Fortuno appointed Emilio Diaz Colon, a retired National Guard general, as chief of the 17,000-police force in July. But Diaz has been widely criticized for saying he did not plan to make any changes within the troubled department.

The government also has activated hundreds of National Guard troops and enlisted the help of federal authorities to solve violent crimes.

"Citizens need to say they have had enough," said Luis Guillermo Romero Font, who started a nonprofit organization to fight crime. He has helped the government introduce a mobile phone application that allows people to take pictures, videos and GPS coordinates and provide police with anonymous tips.

Romero said he was inspired to fight crime after the fatal stabbing of his 19-year-old son during an assault in the capital's Condado tourist district.

"Am I angry? Of course, how could I not be?" he said. "We will be devastated our entire lives, and learning to live with a pain that is terrible."