Orlando Sentinel
July 24, 2005

Drug wars have islanders caught in crosshairs

To tackle the problem, authorities try to educate the public, treat addicts and pursue traffickers and dealers.

By Matthew Hay Brown
Sentinel Staff Writer

LAS PIEDRAS, Puerto Rico -- The men pulled up about 8:30 that night, stopped outside Building A-6 of the La Ribera public-housing project and opened fire.

Nine AK-47 rounds ripped into 5-year-old Paola Nicole Ortega Santiago.

The dark-eyed child, a student in the local Head Start program, died instantly -- another innocent bystander in a feud between rival drug gangs.

The May bloodbath, in which five others were wounded, was just the latest battle in a decades-long drug war that has pushed the homicide rate in this Caribbean U.S. territory to more than three times the national average.

As of Friday morning, 439 people had been killed on the island of 3.9 million since the start of the year. That's 16 behind the pace set last year, when authorities counted an eight-year high of 793 murders.

"The crime rate is the No. 1 problem for Puerto Ricans," said Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who took office in January. "It's been the No. 1 concern for the last 30 years."

It is the misfortune of this Spanish-speaking U.S. territory to lie geographically and culturally between the cocaine- and heroin-producing countries of South America and the vast and lucrative market for narcotics in the United States.

As Puerto Rico is a bridge for legitimate trade between the continents, so it is a natural transshipment point for smugglers. Of the hundreds of tons of drugs that reach this Connecticut-sized island each year, authorities say, up to 20 percent stays here.

The struggle for control of the local market fuels the bloody turf battles that account for more than 60 percent of the killings here.

"It's an emergency," said San Juan physician José Vargas Vidot, founder of one of Puerto Rico's most prominent social-services agencies. "It is carrying away a generation of our people."

Police say the attackers at La Ribera had been targeting 18-year-old Héctor Nieves Martínez, a drug dealer at the housing project. When Nieves Martínez saw them coming, police say, he ran to an apartment full of children, thinking they would not fire.

He was wrong.

Nieves Martínez was wounded in the attack, as was Paola's mother, 29-year-old Denise Santiago Vargas; a half-brother, 3-year-old Alexis González Santiago; 16-year-old Danny Soto Agosto; and 1-year-old Isaías Morales Fernández.

"I don't think it's going to stop," said Vargas Vidot, director of the nonprofit Iniciativa Comunitaria. "I think it's going to get worse."

Government officials are confronting the drug trade here on three main fronts: public-education programs that focus largely on the young; treatment for those who are addicted; and the prosecution of traffickers and dealers.

It is the last of the three that gets the most attention -- and the most money. Since Sept. 11, 2001, law-enforcement officials say, island and federal agencies have enjoyed budget increases, improved coordination and taken advantage of new investigative powers.

The results, they say, have been positive. The U.S. Coast Guard seized nearly twice as much cocaine and marijuana in the Caribbean in 2004 as the year before. Federal agencies, working with foreign governments to prosecute kingpins once thought untouchable overseas, have dismantled several international drug-trafficking organizations.

Awash in drugs

Still, signs of Puerto Rico's problem abound -- in the addicts who beg change off tourists and the spent syringes that litter the plazas and the alleys; in the bars that homeowners install on windows and doors; in the gunfire that crackles at night and the bodies that turn up at dawn.

Violence has touched all levels of society here. In December, a nephew and two grandnieces of former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló were shot to death while their car idled at a traffic light outside the San Patricio shopping mall in suburban Guaynabo. Another grandniece and family friend were injured.

Police think they were bystanders in the drive-by shooting, in which six others were wounded.

The previous December, two men gunned down former Major League Baseball all-star Iván Calderón at a bar in the north-coast town of Loíza. That impoverished community has suffered so much violence that some parents have taken out life-insurance policies on their teenage sons.

The roots of the problem run deep. Annual per-capita income here is $16,543 -- less than half that of the U.S. mainland. More than 40 percent of public-school students drop out before graduating high school. Unemployment has risen to 11.2 percent.

Given such conditions, gangs have little difficulty recruiting members.

"There is an absence of correct models for the youth," Vargas Vidot said. "It's a climate of consumerism, individualism, an addiction to consumption, a syndrome of instant gratification."

The violence, meanwhile, has helped power the continuing exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland -- a brain drain with serious implications for the island's development. The loss of productivity -- to addiction, to criminal activity and to violence -- also carries costs.

"We are losing a lot of resources to this problem," said psychologist Salvador Santiago Negrón, chairman of a government-appointed commission on violence.

"The other impact is the possibility of attracting investment," said Santiago, president of Carlos Albizu University in San Juan. "If we are a corporation, will we invest here, where we have close to 20 homicides per 100,000 people, or will we invest in Costa Rica, where there are only two homicides per 100,000?"

The impact of violence on tourism in Puerto Rico is unclear. Nelly Cruz, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., says no tourist has been a victim of violent crime since she joined the government agency at the beginning of 2003, and she knows of no earlier incident.

A tragic legacy

Nestor Muñíz says efforts must go beyond law enforcement, to what he says are the roots of drug-related violence in Puerto Rico.

"We live in a society of appearances," the San Juan businessman said. "He who has more is worth more. The youth want everything immediately, and the easiest way to get what you want is drugs.

"We have to show that there are better, more honest ways to make a living."

Muñíz's daughter Nicole, a college-bound honors student at the Academia San José in San Juan, once wrote about helping to end the violence here.

"I want to make a difference in this life, a positive difference," she wrote in one high-school assignment.

Nicole was driving past the Villa Esperanza public-housing project in San Juan one night in August 2003 when she was struck by a stray bullet thought to have been fired by a sniper defending drug turf.

Her car slammed into a bridge abutment, killing her. She was 16.

Now Nicole smiles down from anti-violence billboards in the capital. Her father has taken up her campaign -- serving on Santiago's commission, leading marches of survivors, speaking at anti-violence conferences and planning a Casa Nicole after-school program for at-risk youth.

"We need a return to family," Nestor Muñíz said. "There is a lack of respect for authority. Fifteen years ago, parents were more conscious of their responsibility to raise their children. Many people now are afraid of their children. It's a crisis in the family that leads to a crisis in society."

Muñíz and others are advocating for new approaches to the drug-fueled violence here -- ideas that range from earlier closing hours for bars and curfews for youth to improvements in public education and expanded efforts at economic development.

"We have a minimum unemployment of 10 percent," Santiago said. "In some communities it's 40 percent. So there is a factor: The underground economy pays off.

"Then you look at the profile of the typical person arrested. He's a male, under 25, with only a ninth-grade education, unemployed, no bona-fide marketable skills. That's the profile of a failed school system."

Troubled public education and sluggish economic growth are decades-old problems here. Seeking to address them, the governor campaigned last year on what he called the "Triangle of Success" -- better schools, more jobs and safer streets.

His anti-crime plan includes boosting the Puerto Rico Police Department's DNA lab, updating a criminal database and installing security cameras in public high-crime areas. He has announced a reorganization of the department, including a new auxiliary superintendent of drugs, narcotics and illegal weapons to focus on drug violence.

But perhaps his boldest move so far has been crossing political lines to appoint Pedro Toledo as superintendent of the department. The former FBI supervisor returns to the position he held from 1993 to 2001 under then-Gov. Pedro Rosselló, Acevedo's main opponent in last year's bitterly fought election campaign.

His appointment recalls the tough-on-crime approach to crime of the 1990s, when Rosselló called in the Puerto Rico National Guard to occupy high-crime areas.

After four superintendents in four years, Toledo is expected to restore some continuity to the department. Since returning to the department, he has overseen high-profile raids of several drug-selling points.

Dora Nevares Muñiz, author of El Crimen en Puerto Rico -- "Crime in Puerto Rico" -- says such efforts alone are not enough.

"This police superintendent is very proactive in terms of intervening with the drug points," said Nevares, a law professor at Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico. "But once a drug point is closed, they just open another one."

Getting less attention are efforts to reduce the demand for drugs.

José González Soto lives in the Hato Rey section of the capital and tends bar in nearby Río Piedras. With his wraparound shades, powder-blue sports shirt and designer jeans, the 30-year-old looks like any other hip young sanjuanero.

Soto says he has been injecting himself with heroin on and off for 10 years -- a habit that his cost him jobs, relationships and his freedom. He says he has been in and out of prison during the past decade.

"I'm looking for treatment," he said. "I'm talking to different places. I'm tired of the [expletive]."

The central government here estimates that 75,000 islanders are addicted to heroin, cocaine or other illegal drugs. The only treatment it offers is methadone for heroin addicts, through a network of clinics and mobile units running at capacity with 9,155 patients. Municipal and private programs do not make up the difference.

"It's not really adequate," said Sister Rosemarie González, who runs a private, 50-bed treatment program in the Puerta de Tierra barrio of San Juan. "There are not enough spaces. Even for regular detox, there's not enough."

While the drug trade fuels gang violence here, drug dependency brings its own problems.

"What strikes us and affects us is the consequences of addiction, in terms of crime, and health and disturbed families because of all the legal implications, the criminality," said Pedro Morales, assistant administrator of the governmental Administration of Mental Health and Addiction Services. "I think that's what affects us most as a community here."

'It's going to be a long struggle'

To improve conditions here, Nevares says, the government must make a long-term commitment to fighting crime, reducing demand for drugs and providing legitimate career alternatives to those who would be drawn into the drug trade.

"It requires strategic agendas, public policy, and we will not see results in a couple of years," she said. "It will take time, because the criminals today are the people who grew up years ago.

"The problem is that in terms of the government, the politicians think in terms of four years, in terms of what will gain them votes. It's like a dog chasing his tail."

Nestor Muñíz, the father of Nicole, says Puerto Ricans have grown scared.

"We live behind locked doors," he said. "We have to be talking about a curfew to protect our kids. We are afraid even to let them go to the movies."

Muñíz has two older daughters. One lives in Pensacola with his first grandchild. She has spoken of returning to the island. He says he has tried to discourage her.

"With a pain in my heart, I have to tell her that Puerto Rico is not a good place to raise kids," he said. "Many people are leaving."

For himself, he says, he plans to stay and fight. He expects a long struggle.

"People believe it's overnight," Muñíz said. "People have to know it's going to be a long struggle. I'm not going to see an end to it. I hope to see some changes for my daughters and my grandchildren. I want to leave them a culture of peace in Puerto Rico."

Matthew Hay Brown can be reached at mhbrown@tribune.com or 787-729-9072.

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