Puerto Rico accused of violating Dominican squatters' rights before international commission

TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico is mistreating squatters in a largely Dominican community, according to an unusual petition filed Wednesday to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging abuses inside U.S. jurisdiction.

The American Civil Liberties Union petition calls on the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments to restore water and electricity to Villas del Sol, a settlement of plywood and cement shacks where it charges about 200 families have been abused by police and unfairly targeted because many of them are immigrants.

Police in riot gear arrived to evict the squatters Aug. 3, claiming they are illegally occupying a dangerous flood zone. Residents locked arms to keep them out. Since then, police have been stationed outside the community around the clock in an uneasy standoff and the water has been turned off except for a month surrounding Christmas.

Some residents now bathe in water from a filthy creek. Others collect rainwater from their roofs. Many store water in open containers that are suspected to be the cause of clouds of mosquitoes and outbreaks of illnesses including dengue fever.

"The government is showing xenophobia and discrimination," said Maritza de la Cruz, a 35-year-old community leader from the Dominican Republic who has lived in the community six years.

The ACLU filed the petition to the rights body of the Washington-based Organization of American States after making unsuccessful appeals to Puerto Rico's government and local courts. It says the lack of running water is feeding the spread of disease and service should be restored.

"The abuse by police combined with the overall anti-Dominican, anti-immigrant sentiment that the community has been exposed to, followed by the lack of water and electricity, have had a devastating impact," said Chandra Bhatnagar, a staff attorney with the ACLU's human rights program in New York.

Puerto Rico's secretary of state, Kenneth McClintock, dismissed any suggestion of discrimination and said utilities cannot be considered a right of the residents because they do not own the land.

"It is illegal to live there. It is not their property," McClintock said. "I know there are pieces of land you and I would love in Puerto Rico, but we don't have a right to invade those lands. And if we do, we don't have rights to request services that are not even available to people who own the property."

Most of the squatters in the Villas del Sol community are single mothers with children who live along dirt roads in Toa Baja, a western suburb of San Juan.

The shacks — many of them abandoned more than a decade ago due to flooding from Hurricane Georges — were claimed by Dominican immigrants and poor Puerto Ricans with nowhere else to live.

"If we don't have water, we don't have life," said de la Cruz, a housekeeper whose infant daughter contracted swine flu in December. "Everything is more difficult — the toilet, washing clothes, cleaning ourselves."

The roughly 200,000 Dominicans on the U.S. island often complain of discrimination in Puerto Rico, a more affluent island of 4 million people where migrants fill low-paying jobs in construction and domestic service.

Advocates suggest the government is trying to discourage squatters elsewhere as Puerto Rico struggles through a deep economic downturn and a low-income housing crunch.

"What they're trying to do basically is smoke them out because they don't want to encourage other squatter communities to develop," said William Ramirez, executive director of the ACLU in Puerto Rico.

The community members recently agreed to vacate the property by May 14. McClintock said the government is working to find safe housing for everyone, but few details are available on where they would go.

If residents have nowhere to go when the deadline arrives some fear more clashes. Twice in recent years officials have threatened residents' shacks with bulldozers, according to the petition.

"I'm worried they will take me out of here with heavy machines," said Ricardo Polanco, an unemployed roofer with two daughters.