As we tore into a maze of streets in the suburbs of San Juan, Agent Victor O. Acevedo pulled a firearm from his belt and placed it on his lap as he looked for any threats that might surface. Acevedo, an enthusiastic 8-year veteran of Puerto Rico’s Narcotics Department, had agreed to let me ride along one day to see a raid in action. At 12:30 p.m., we had been sitting at a quiet roadside stop near Brisas de Bayamón, a fenced-off area of low-income housing, when a call came in on the radio for the team to move in on a target. There were 12 vehicles – a mixture of SUVs, sedans, marked police cars, and two cable repair vehicles – ready to tear into the estate. These areas are so dangerous that repairmen can only fix telegraph lines with police protection otherwise they risk of being robbed or worse. “They fire at police cars as they try to enter the projects,” says Colonel Rafael Rosa, who heads Puerto Rico’s Narcotics Department.
Upon arrival, we saw the suspect sprinting away from the convoy. Acevedo and I exited the car and ran after the subject, a boy in his late teens, with two other officers. He darted around a corner while throwing bags of marijuana over a nearby fence and a modified Taurus Millennium Glockinto a dumpster. An agent grabbed him and pinned him to the ground. The other officers quickly cuffed him. Then the search for the pot and the gun began.
About 30 minutes passed before a call came in to head toward the Falin Torrech housing project, about 15 minutes away. Acevedo and I began walking back to the car. The other officers had already left.
“Walk faster,” Acevedo muttered as he repositioned his pistol to the front of his belt from the back. Slightly bewildered at his change of tone, I looked behind us and saw that 11 men and a few children were glaring in our direction and making their way toward us. Acevedo kept his hand on his firearm and led me quickly toward our car. The experience rattled us both, and without muttering a word, we both understood we had stayed there too long.
Puerto Rico is in crisis these days – Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned July 24 after the island’s Center for Investigative Journalism published messages between the governor and his inner circle that included homophobic and misogynistic language and jokes about Hurricane Maria victims. Thousands of people have marched in the streets protesting corruption at the top, and the political fallout is expected to continue for days or even months.
So you’d be forgiven for not thinking about the gun violence there – but you’d be wrong to do so. Isla Verde, a popular tourist area of San Juan, saw a shootout between two rival drug organizations in broad daylight not long ago. And in the lead-up to Three Kings’ Day this past January 6, 22 people lost their lives violently. Under Rosselló’s direction, Col.Rafael Rosa and the island’s Narcotics Department have been charged with curbing the violence.
The majority of guns come from the United States, where it’s easier and cheaper to obtain them legally. Thousands of weapons every year are disassembled and sent to Puerto Rico via U.S. mail after their serial numbers are filed off.
Yet U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) takes no responsibility for the problem or initiative in finding a solution. In a statement, Jeffrey Quiñones, the agency’s public affairs officer, told New Times: “The CBP does not have jurisdiction nor competency to inspect domestic mail entering Puerto Rico from the U.S. mainland. CBP only inspects international mail.”
As a result, there’s a feeling of helplessness amongst the island’s police force. Even though 2,086 illegal firearms were confiscated in 2018, San Juan police struggle to keep pace with the problem. Debt and a poor economy on the island have led large numbers of officers to relocate to the U.S. and particularly Florida, where more than 1 million Puerto Ricanimmigrants – the most in the nation – reside. Here, there is better pay and less dangerous working conditions. That leaves a smaller, less experienced police force to combatthe illegal weapons trade back home.
The main successes have come from Puerto Rico’s Drug Division, which regularly raids housing projects that are known, through undercover police work and intelligence, to have received illegal packages. Caution when working in these areas is critical, officers say. They bear down on housing projects en masse to apprehend offenders as rapidly and as safely as possible, before they have time to react.
One area where the problem is particularly severe is the housing projects of Bayamón, the island’s second largest city, which is on the north coast. Places such as Virgilio Dávila, Las Gardenias, Brisas de Bayamón, and Falin Torrech are particularly precarious for officers of the area’s “Drugs Division,” which includes the U.S. Marshals and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as well as local police, dog handlers, and even two cable repair vehicles. These areas are so dangerous that repairmen can only fix phone lines with police protection. Otherwise they risk of being robbed or worse by the locals.
“They fire at police cars as they try to enter the projects,” Rosa says.
At 5:30 on the night of my ride-along, it was beginning to get dark and the team pulled into a car lot close to Plaza Las Americas, one of the Caribbean’s largest malls, to regroup and get some food. Over the next few hours, they would seize three modified 9mm pistols, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and bags of drugs ranging from marijuana to cocaine.
The team had received intelligence that there was an individual dealing drugs out of his home who had a substantial amount of narcotics and weapons hidden on the premises. Now 6 p.m. and dark, the team of around 30 officersdescendedonto the estate and drew down on the ground-floor apartment of Miguel Angel Lopez Jr. After surrounding the building, a narcotics officer started to aggressively pound on the door while shouting, “Policía, abrir!” After a short pause, the door opened and a stream of law enforcement officers moved in, with Lopezlooking shocked at the speed of entry into the apartment. Two large officers seized hold of him.
Lopezstood over a table with his hands cuffed and the officers on either side of him, showing off the contraband that had been seized. A small cache of weapons was discovered in the oven, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. It seems Lopezhad, upon hearing the commotion, tried to hide anything that would incriminate himself. Alas, he was not quick enough to evade the experienced officers’ search – cocaine was found packaged in tubes ready to be sold on the street.
It was only after we arrived back at the Bayamón police station at 1 a.m. that I realized the officers considered the raid relatively mundane.
“This has been a quiet night for us,” onenarcotics officer mentioned in passing.
The majority of violent crime in Puerto Rico is gang related. The island has a murder rate four times that of mainland U.S. With a murder rate of two in every 10,000 people, Puerto Rico is closer to
other Central American neighbors in this regard than it is to the U.S.
The political tumult that sent scores of protesters into the streets and ended with the possible appointment of Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice, Wanda Vazquez to take Rosselló’s place, will likely encourage even more violence and chaos, at least in the short term.
Rosa says the most effective way to improve conditions on the island is to prevent the export of guns and drugs to the island at the source – on the mainland.
“There is nothing we can do to prevent the weapons coming over,” he says. “We need a lot of personnel to stop the flow into the country... We don’t have the resources.”