World

Puerto Rico sees lowest homicide rate in nearly 15 year as island takes steps to fight crime

  • FILE - This Sept. 23, 2014 file photo shows the Santurce neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The crime wave that marred Puerto Rico’s image in recent years appears to have ebbed, with homicides decreasing and both residents and police adopting new measures to track problems and improve public safety, including a crime-tip mobile app that allows people to easily alert police to suspected crimes such as assault, robbery, domestic violence and child abuse. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

    FILE - This Sept. 23, 2014 file photo shows the Santurce neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The crime wave that marred Puerto Rico’s image in recent years appears to have ebbed, with homicides decreasing and both residents and police adopting new measures to track problems and improve public safety, including a crime-tip mobile app that allows people to easily alert police to suspected crimes such as assault, robbery, domestic violence and child abuse. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - This Oct. 13, 2014 file photo shows a man fishing from a dock in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. In 2014, the Caribbean island saw the lowest number of homicides in nearly 15 years, part of a long-term trend of declining rates of violent crime across the region. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

    FILE - This Oct. 13, 2014 file photo shows a man fishing from a dock in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. In 2014, the Caribbean island saw the lowest number of homicides in nearly 15 years, part of a long-term trend of declining rates of violent crime across the region. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • Cars drive along the junction of PR-52 and PR-22 highways in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. The crime wave that marred Puerto Rico’s image in recent years appears to have ebbed. Police have adopted new measures, while the FBI expanded its authority in handling carjacking cases, a key to deterring criminals from stealing cars to commit other crimes. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

    Cars drive along the junction of PR-52 and PR-22 highways in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. The crime wave that marred Puerto Rico’s image in recent years appears to have ebbed. Police have adopted new measures, while the FBI expanded its authority in handling carjacking cases, a key to deterring criminals from stealing cars to commit other crimes. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)  (The Associated Press)

The crime wave that marred Puerto Rico's image in recent years appears to have ebbed, with homicides decreasing and both residents and police adopting new measures to track problems and improve public safety.

The island of 3.7 million people had 681 homicides in 2014, the lowest number in nearly 15 years and a drop of 40 percent since murders reached a record high of 1,164 three years ago. Violent crime overall fell 17 percent over the same period.

Credit for the decline goes to a number of factors, from increased efforts to prevent crime to a broader trend of declining violence across the United States and the Caribbean.

Luis Romero, whose son was fatally stabbed during a holdup in 2011, is among the Puerto Ricans who have helped turn the tide. Following the death of his 20-year-old son, Romero used his skills as the owner of a telecommunications services company to create a mobile app that allows users to anonymously report suspected crimes to police. So far, it's been downloaded more than 40,000 times and has been used to send in more than 6,800 tips.

"The people have said enough is enough," Romero said. "Puerto Rico got fed up with the level of crime."

2011 was seen by many as a low point for Puerto Rico. Not only did homicides peak, but the FBI expanded its involvement in the U.S. territory after a Justice Department report found widespread problems in the island's police force, including corruption, illegal killings and civil rights violations.

Seeking to crack down on the most serious crimes, the FBI took charge of cases that involved armed suspects with previous criminal records. Suspects detained by federal agents are subject to being held without bond, and the system has a 97 percent conviction rate.

The FBI also expanded its authority in handling carjacking cases, a key to deterring criminals from stealing cars to commit other crimes. The bureau and other federal agencies also flew in personnel from the U.S. mainland to help bring Puerto Rico's crime wave under control.

As a result, the island has experienced a "dramatic" improvement in public safety since 2011, said Carlos Cases, the FBI special agent in charge for the island.

"The streets of Puerto Rico at the time, especially in the San Juan metropolitan area, were essentially no man's land," he said.

Use of the crime-tip mobile app, led by an anti-crime organization known as "Basta Ya PR" meaning "Enough is enough, Puerto Rico," has been part of the change.

The app allows people to easily alert police to suspected crimes such as assault, robbery, domestic violence and child abuse.

"The cooperation of citizens has been key in helping us solve murders and seize weapons," said Lt. Ricardo Haddock, sub director of criminal investigations in the north municipality of Carolina. "Everything's so much faster with technology now. People are cooperating more than ever."

For its part, the Puerto Rico Police Department last year began using a system that tracks the locations of reported gunfire in greater San Juan in order to decide where to assign daily patrols.

Puerto Rico's drop in crime comes amid a long-term trend of declining rates of violent crime across the region. In Jamaica, killings in 2014 were the lowest in 11 years and down roughly 40 percent compared with a record 1,680 in 2009. Trinidad and Tobago saw a 27 percent drop in killings from the 2008 high of 547. And in the Dominican Republic, there were fewer than 2,000 killings in each of the past two years for the first time in more than a decade.

Still, parts of the Caribbean remain violent as a drug-trafficking corridor awash in weapons, often smuggled out of the United States. Even in places like Puerto Rico and Jamaica where the numbers are falling, much of the crime involves gang battles or people seeking cash or valuables to feed a drug habit, like the 15-year-old mugger who attacked Romero's son.

Romero said more remains to be done. Puerto Rico should reduce overall violent crime by 70 percent and aim for no more than 582 killings for 2016, half of that reported in 2011. He plans to continue working with police to make the island safer.

"When your son has been killed, it's hard to talk about the subject constantly," he said. "But it has to be done."

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Danica Coto on Twitter: https://twitter.com/danicacoto