Orlando Sentinel
July 24, 2005

Her children's slayings killed her dreams, too

By Ray Quintanilla
Sentinel Staff Writer

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Nereida Machicote contemplates the horror as she stands outside her drab apartment at the Luis Lloréns Torres public-housing project.

There are many tragic stories at Lloréns, a 22-acre complex of three- and four-story buildings where 1,200 of Puerto Rico's poorest families live.

But there is no story more jolting than Machicote's.

This is where she raised her children.

And this is where they died: Emily in her bedroom where, police say, her drug-dealer boyfriend shot her in the head; Javier on a nearby street corner, where someone cut him down with 87 machine-gun rounds a few days later.

Nereida couldn't even recognize his mutilated corpse when police called her to identify him.

More than a year later, she tries with weary resignation to take in the enormity of what happened. It's impossible.

She considered suicide more than once: "I can't tell you how painful it was to have both of my babies killed like that . . ."

Each had dreamed of a life outside Lloréns, one of the most dangerous housing projects in Puerto Rico.

Emily, 17, thought she might be a model someday. Javier, 20, wanted to be a firefighter.

Maybe, Javier told his mother, he could make enough money to move her out of the project, where three generations of the Machicote family have lived.

But there would be no escape from Lloréns, where a violent drug culture would smother Javier and his sister from the days of their childhood to their final, wrenching moments.

Their deaths were strikingly similar to thousands of others in Puerto Rico, where police have been unable to tame decades of gang warfare sparked by the drug trade.

The victims are often young and poor. They're often unable to transcend the despair that follows them through their short lives. They lack a solid education and marketable skills. And, almost inevitably, they are sucked into a culture of violence just outside their front doors.

Nereida began to suspect that her son had crossed the line. She hoped she was wrong.

And now, she constantly thinks about that January night last year when she heard Javier's voice for the last time:

"Mother, I'm going to see a friend. Be right back. I love you."

Tragic lives

As dreams go, it wasn't so outlandish. Emily, tall and slender, wanted to be a model. And who knows, if everything worked out right, maybe she would be the next Jennifer Lopez.

College also was in her plans. She figured she could pay for her classes by modeling clothes.

But she would never come close.

Emily became pregnant. She thought about an abortion to hang on to her hopes of becoming a model. But after "three weeks of torture," Nereida said, her daughter decided to have the baby.

Emily would want a secure life for her child -- one that modeling could not offer. So she would lower her sights.

And she would try to talk her 19-year-old boyfriend into abandoning his venture into illegal drugs. At the time, police said, he was running his own street corner and pulling in about $1,500 a week.

"She told him, 'There's no future in drugs' -- that he needed to get out while he was still a small-time drug dealer," Emily's mother recalled.

"He kept telling her no, because the money was good."

By this time, Javier already had abandoned his plans to be a firefighter after dropping out of high school.

He was a slow learner, his mom said. Sometimes he would come home from school so upset that he would ask her if he was "born stupid."

For years he drifted from carpentry jobs to working as a dishwasher and fry cook at fast-food restaurants. And as his hopes dimmed, his frustration and anger grew.

Javier's mother suspects he might have been falling prey to the inevitable lure of the drug culture as he skipped from low-wage job to low-wage job.

"He told me, 'I'm not making money, so maybe I should get into selling drugs too,' " she recalled.

Aileene M. Mudafort, who runs one of the largest social-service programs in Puerto Rico's high-crime areas, said children growing up in Lloréns and similar projects lack hope and barely have a chance at a decent life.

Many come from families trapped in public housing for generations.

Javier often told his mother that he hated life in Lloréns. Drug dealers enforced their own brand of justice -- even restricting where residents could go.

Once, they beat Javier's best friend simply for walking too close to their "corner."

The sprawling complex, named after the famous Puerto Rican poet Luis Lloréns Torres, consists of 200 buildings situated between two of the most affluent communities on the island.

"Just about every family there relies on food stamps just to put food on the table," Mudafort said. "It's desperate."

But Lloréns is not isolated. The illegal-drug trade plied so ruthlessly outside its doors reflects something larger.

Puerto Ricans live "in a perpetual state of economic inequality," says José Vargas Vidot, director of the San Juan-based Iniciativa Comunitaria. "It carries itself as a First World country -- but in its roots, it is a Third World economy."

And drugs, he said, help fuel a huge underground economy.

More than 44 percent of the island's families live below the poverty line, according to the 2000 U.S. census. And the public-school dropout rate is 40.1 percent.

The bleak picture Vargas Vidot describes is made worse by the steady flow of firearms to the island, police Superintendent Pedro Toledo said. "It's all connected: the drugs, the killing and the availability of guns."

Eighteen people were murdered in Lloréns last year -- among the nearly 800 killed throughout the island in 2004.

'Hell on Earth'

Emily Machicote died Jan. 6, 2004, of a single gunshot wound to the head.

She and her boyfriend had been arguing again that week, Nereida recalled.

At first, authorities thought she had shot herself. But after failing to find a weapon, they turned their attention to her boyfriend, whom they arrested on first-degree-murder charges, police spokesman Renato Cano said.

"I kept telling the police, 'How is a girl going to shoot herself in a bedroom with a gun that nobody can find?' " Nereida said. "They told me to just calm down."

Javier died on the same street corner where, as a boy, he would heckle drug dealers. Some friends suspect he was there either to inquire about joining them, or to scare off customers. It's also possible he was looking for answers after his sister's slaying.

No one knows for sure. What they do know is this: The night of Jan. 12, Javier was mowed down in a barrage of machine-gun fire. Such killings, Cano said, "are typically related to drugs."

The Machicotes had no money to pay for Emily's funeral, so the city of San Juan offered several hundred dollars to buy her a casket. The $200 Javier had saved was used to pay for his modest funeral arrangements.

"Maybe both of them are in a better place," Nereida said. "They lived through hell on Earth."

Now, Nereida is left to raise yet another child: her grandson. Emil likely will walk the same ugly streets and face the same pressures that his mother and uncle faced.

The next generation of Machicotes has arrived at Luis Lloréns.

Matthew Hay Brown of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Ray Quintanilla can be reached at 787-729-9071or rquintanilla@orlandosentinel.com.

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