Along with major economic problems, Puerto Rico also suffers from an astronomic violent crime rate; the U.S. territory registered 13 murders in the first five days of 2014 – four of them occurring during a single night.
Among those killed was Gilberto de Jesús Casas, the creator of the popular social media character "Mi Pana Gillito" and brother of television actor Javier de Jesús. His death was mourned over social networks including by Calle 13 singer Residente.
The burst of murders in the first few days of the New Year indicates that Puerto Rico’s homicide rate, which reached a record high in 2011 of 1,130, remains high above the level of the rest of the United States. Puerto Rico averages around 26.2 murders per 100,000 residents – putting it on par with countries like Mexico (23.7), the Dominican Republic (25) – a far cry from the U.S.’s 4.7 per 100,000, according to statistics compiled by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime.
“It’s going to take some doing to fix this problem,” Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told Fox News Latino. “The crime rate has been neglected for so long that it looks like the problem is not going to go away anytime soon.”
Falcón added that Puerto Rico has locked in a three-fold predicament when trying to tackle its violent crime rate – an unstable economic situation that limits available resources, a recent shake-up in the island’s police department, and a lack of attention from federal law enforcement to territory’s position as an increasingly important drug transit zone.
The Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) was hit in 2011 with a damming Department of Justice report, which found evidence that officers frequently used excessive and unreasonable force, targeted individuals of Dominican descent and made many unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, among other issues.
The crime rate has been neglected for so long that it looks like the problem is not going to go away anytime soon.
- Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy
In response to the report, the Justice Department pledged $10 million to the Puerto Rican government last July to combat police corruption, extrajudicial killings and civil rights violations, though the island has 10 years to implement all the changes outlined in the deal.
Last year, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla selected former New York City police chief of transportation James Tuller Cintrón as the new superintendent of the PRPD. Tuller replaced Hectór Pesquera, a former FBI official who surprised many when he resigned after less than two years on the job.
“There are problems at all levels of the police: in its pay, its leadership, its training,” Rafael Fantauzzi, the president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, told Fox News Latino when the money was given to the PRPD. “It’s going to take a while for anything to happen, but this is a good first step for the new government.”
With U.S. anti-drug operations heavily focused on the border with Mexico, Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean are beginning to see a trafficking surge reminiscent of the 1980s heyday of the Colombia-South Florida drug trade.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands together receive less than $100 million a year in direct federal funding for anti-drug efforts. Comparing that to the more than $2 billion that the federal government has dedicated to fighting trafficking on the Mexican border. Many experts point to that as one reason for the high murder rate in Puerto Rico.
“We focus on the southern border with Mexico and to a lesser extent the border with Canada, but we need to look at the third border: the Caribbean,” Falcón said. “There needs to be more federal attention on Puerto Rico and unfortunately it took the bad actions of the police to bring the attention to it.”
Gov. García Padilla will have to walk a fine line as he balances his support of the police department and work to combat crime with an economy in a tailspin.
Puerto Rico has been in a recession for almost eight years, during which the public debt has skyrocketed to $70 billion and unemployment has climbed to 14 percent, higher than that of any U.S. state. The island’s debt load accounts for 93 percent of its GDP.
Many economic experts worry that Puerto Rico could default on its debt, which in turn might engulf the island in even more crime as money and jobs become scarcer.
“Not only is there a debt problem, but there’s a deep structural problem,” Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a Latin America policy analyst at the Cato Institute told Fox News Latino in December. “Puerto Rico has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the world. Only about 40 percent of the working age population is in the labor force.”
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