The Miami Herald
Jan. 26, 2004

'Angels' target crime in Puerto Rico

With the homicide rate in Puerto Rico skyrocketing, the New York-based Guardian Angels have set up a chapter on the island.


  TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico - Wearing the trademark red berets and with handcuffs hanging off the back of their pants, a group of men and women marched silently across a popular neighborhood park one recent evening, bringing playing children to a momentary halt and prompting parents to pass judgement on this island's newest
  crime-fighting team.

  ''Are they here to take care of this place?'' Freddy Carmona, a frequent jogger, asked another park visitor. ``This is great. Seeing them brings some peace of mind,
  makes you feel a little safer.''

  The red-beret wearers are among nearly 50 recruits of the New York-based Guardian Angels now training for street patrols in what has become the deadliest place in the United States. Puerto Rico has three times the national average of homicides per capita.

  Hoping to make a dent in the crime rate, the Guardian Angels have set up a chapter on the island. Training of the current recruits will run through early April, with street patrols expected to begin soon after, primarily in San Juan and surrounding communities that have become havens for drug gangs responsible for most of the deaths.


  ''Ya basta. Too many killings,'' said Arnaldo Salinas, a senior director for the Guardian Angels who flew to Puerto Rico to help set up the chapter.

  ''If nobody takes a step forward, nobody will follow. So we're taking the first step,'' said 35-year-old Reynaldo Anglero, one of the Guardian Angels recruits.

  ''We want to help take youths out of drugs and death and give them an environment of peace and love,'' said José Santos López, a furniture store employee and father of four.

  An estimated 80 percent of deaths, most of which are the result of bullet wounds, are tied to a flourishing drug trade that has generated turf battles among heavily armed traffickers. Shootouts at bars, discotheques and housing projects that serve as drug distribution points have become an almost daily occurrence, resulting in several deaths of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

  Just this week, a drive-by shooting at a crowded bar in San Juan left three dead and 11 wounded, bringing the death toll since the start of the new year to 45, compared to 28 during the same period last year.

  The number of homicides has steadily climbed each year over the past five years. In 2003, a total of 779 people were killed on the island of four million. The previous four years the death tolls were 774, 744, 695 and 593, respectively.

  Last year's body count in Puerto Rico surpassed the homicide rate of cities with twice as many residents, including New York and Chicago, both of which had about 600 murders during the same period. The turf wars have become so blatant, residents, politicians and even the police have embraced the Guardian Angels.

  ''We welcome anyone who wants to cooperate in a positive way to alleviate crime,'' said Col. José Denis Savales of the Puerto Rico Police Department.


  The murder rate is quickly becoming a hot campaign issue and talk of a return to the ''mano dura'' or ''hard-hand'' tactic involving the use of the National Guard to
  dismantle drug distribution points or ''puntos de drogas'' is gaining increasing support among voters. The approach was used in the 1990s by former Gov. Pedro Rosello,
  who is seeking another term in elections later this year.

  Rubén Gómez, the chapter leader for the Guardian Angels, is optimistic that their presence will serve as a ''visual deterrent'' to crime. The volunteers must be at least 16 years old and undergo a police background check. They do not carry weapons and are trained in self-defense and first aid. Their goal is to facilitate arrests and galvanize the population to take part in crime prevention.

  But in this U.S. Caribbean territory, which serves as a transshipment point for drugs on the way to Miami and other major U.S. cities, the Guardian Angels will face tough gangs that have taken control by arming teenagers who serve as lookouts and giving financial help to struggling residents.

  ''It's tougher here because in New York you don't have 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds carrying guns,'' Gómez said. ``But if you get the community involved, crime will stop.''

  Their effort, so far, has earned some applause even as many remain skeptical.

  ''Any attempt to do something is always positive,'' said Julio Rosa, a 30-year-old physical education teacher. ``Whether it will have and effect, I have my doubts but I
  support what they are trying to do.''