Corruption scandals plague governments in Puerto Rico
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
A string of corruption scandals during the last three months have
cast shadows over Puerto Rico's police department, municipal governments
and even the legislative
assembly, the latest outbreak of a problem that has plagued Puerto Rico on and off for decades.
``Una novela (a soap opera),'' is how Javier Colón, head of the political science department at the University of Puerto Rico, described the federal grand jury indictments against about 40 people, including police officers, politicians and other high-profile citizens.
``It's bad,'' Colón said. ``There is a growing distrust among the public.''
The arrests are part of a cleanup effort that is being led by the FBI.
The most scandalous case involves a longtime politician who was
serving as speaker of the House in San Juan and as the Commonwealth's representative
Republican Party in Washington when he was indicted Oct. 26.
Edison Misla Aldarondo was among five people charged with conspiracy, extortion and money laundering.
Misla Aldarondo, who has been implicated in previous corruption cases, also is accused of using his political influence to obstruct and delay the federal investigation.
According to the six-count indictment, Misla Aldarondo and two associates demanded payments from three of the defendants to help secure contracts at a hospital in Manatí.
The alleged scam resulted in payments in excess of $254,000. All five defendants face up to 20 years in prison.
The fact that U.S. agents -- instead of Puerto Rico's own law enforcement -- are making most of the arrests, has prompted some criticism against Gov. Sila Calderón.
Her victory last year hinged, in part, on a campaign promise to establish a government free of unscrupulous acts.
Calderón declared ``that there was corruption in the government, that it was rampant and that she was going to put an end to it,'' said Félix Matos-Rodríguez, director for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. ``It's interesting that the governor actually has played a very little role [in the corruption arrests].''
Matos-Rodríguez said that is fueling increasing cynicism among some supporters.
``I think there is a sense that either the campaign promise was hollow or she has not paid a lot of attention [to corruption],'' he said.
Two days before the Misla Aldarondo indictment, federal authorities arrested the mayor of Vega Alta, a city west of San Juan. The mayor, Juan Manuel Cruzado Laureano, who is married to a senator, is accused of stealing $28,945 in municipal funds and later trying to influence the testimony of witnesses in the case.
The 11-count indictment includes charges of interference with commerce by extortion, money laundering, theft of funds from a federally funded organization and witness tampering. If convicted, Cruzado could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Puerto Rico's police department also has suffered an embarrassing
blow with the arrest of 29 officers in August as part of the biggest case
so far. In Puerto Rico, it is
known as honor perdido, ``lost honor.''
The officers, several of whom are veterans with a decade on the force, were indicted on drug trafficking charges and firearms violations.
They are accused of protecting shipments of cocaine between June 14, 2000, and May 2, 2001. In exchange for their services, drug barons paid the male and female officers between $3,000 and $28,000, the indictment alleges.
The police officers, whose ages range from 21 to 43, were assigned to districts in Fajardo, San Juan, Humacao and Caguas. Three others indicted in the case include a Department of Corrections officer, an employee at police headquarters in Hato Rey and a former police officer.
All 32 defendants face from 10 years to life imprisonment.
Puerto Rico has a long history of crooked politicians and cops.
One of the most unsavory incidents is known as the Cerro Maravilla case, named after a mountain where two advocates for Puerto Rican independence were killed by police July 26, 1979.
A decade later, Puerto Ricans became privy to a secret system used by police intelligence agents to track at least 90,000 people for supposed ties to subversive activity. The murky operation had been in place for years and files were kept on people without specific reasons or outside supervision.
Private citizens continued to be targets of police corruption in the 1980s with the exposure of a ring linked to several gangland-style executions.
Matos-Rodríguez, of Hunter College, said a sluggish economy is making Puerto Rico's tradition of ``political patronage'' more prevalent.
``In order to be able to do business in Puerto Rico, you need to engage the political force because economic space is less open,'' Matos-Rodríguez said.
The FBI's aggressive pursuit of dirty cops and politicians excelled when Special Agent-in-Charge Marlene M. Hunter took over the post two years ago and made corruption cases a priority for the department.
Calderón backed the effort when she took office by appointing an anti-corruption commission.
And though her administration cannot take credit for the most recent indictments, the governor has publicly applauded the arrests and demanded resignations.
Despite criticism in some circles, federal officials said Calderón has helped set a tone of cooperation.
``Some of the cases have been referred to us by the local government,'' said agent Eric Rivera, an FBI spokesman in San Juan. ``We work with them every day.''
Meanwhile, trials are pending in all of the cases and more arrests are likely.
``Corruption is something that the FBI is always willing to go after and dedicate resources to,'' Rivera said. ``We're going to be here until there is no more.''