Successes are hard-won in war on traffickers
Governor brings back tough top cop -- critics fear erosion of rights
By Matthew Hay Brown
Sentinel Staff Writer
CATAÑO, Puerto Rico -- Machine-gun-wielding SWAT team members sweep into the Coquí I public-housing project, blurry shadows in the dark night.
Police cruisers block the exits of the walled complex. A helicopter beats low overhead, throwing a white searchlight beam over three-story concrete buildings.
Two troopers brush past a barefoot woman in a nightshirt, a baby in her arms, and climb the stairs to a third-floor unit. They emerge a few minutes later escorting a heavy man in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. His hands are cuffed behind his back.
He is Francisco "Gordo" Huertas Colón, 37, and he is accused of turning Coquí I into a megapunto, a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, open-air drug market where authorities say sales of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crack grossed $1.8 million a year.
During the next two hours, police officers and agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration will arrest dozens here and elsewhere in Cataño, a poor town just west of San Juan that saw 25 killings last year.
"These are cases that impact that community because we know those groups were involved in murder, and we know that group had that community under siege," said Jerome Harris, the special agent in charge of the DEA for the Caribbean.
"It's going to have an immediate effect within that community. The question is whether it's going to have a lasting effect."
In the unending task of stanching the flow of drugs from South America into Puerto Rico, law enforcement lately has scored some successes. Federal agents, working with foreign governments, have dismantled several South American trafficking organizations, arresting drug kingpins once thought to be untouchable in their home countries.
The U.S. Coast Guard seized a record haul of illegal narcotics last year, nearly doubling the amount of cocaine and marijuana confiscated in the Caribbean.
But for all the law-enforcement progress, drugs remain readily available in Puerto Rico. And the killing over who profits continues.
Harris, a narcotics detective with the Philadelphia Police Department before he joined the DEA in 1979, says law enforcement can be only one part of the fight against drugs and a homicide rate that is more than three times the U.S. mainland's national average. "All this is economics-driven," he said. "The bottom line is, if we can't give people a job, how are you going to effect some change?"
They call it Route 66, the line of longitude that runs from the north coast of South America straight into Puerto Rico. Both geographically and culturally, this Spanish-speaking U.S. territory of 3.9 million lies between the drug producers of South America and the consumers of North America.
"We are a natural way station, a stopping point for smugglers," said Roberto Medina, until recently the special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. "Once they are here, it's much easier to transit to the U.S. mainland."
To keep the drugs out, the Coast Guard and FURA -- las Fuerzas Unidas de Rápida Acción, the island Police Department's maritime-interdiction force -- patrol more than 300 miles of coastline.
Coast Guard Capt. Douglas Rudolph calls it a daunting task.
"Puerto Rico has water approaches from 360 degrees, and drugs flow in from all directions," said Rudolph, commander of Coast Guard Sector San Juan. "It makes it uniquely difficult, that's for sure."
Drug-trafficking organizations in Colombia alone ship about 165 tons of cocaine annually through Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, according to a report by the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area for the region.
Most of the illegal drugs that travel up Route 66 are only passing through on the way to the United States, Canada or Europe, authorities say. But up to 20 percent stays in Puerto Rico -- the cut taken by the local smugglers for receiving the shipments and sending them onward.
"These people get paid not with money; they get paid with drugs," said Pedro Toledo, superintendent of the Puerto Rico Police Department. "That means they have to engage in the distribution at low levels in order to get some money. When they do that, sometimes they invade the areas controlled by other people. That's why you see these homicides."
Authorities blame more than 60 percent of the killings here on battles for control of local puntos, the drug-selling points typically found in public-housing projects or low-income barrios.
Chronic violence makes Puerto Rico more dangerous for law-enforcement officers than any U.S. state. Forty were killed here from 1994 to 2003 -- more than in Florida and New York combined, and the highest number per capita in the United States, according to the FBI.
A new leader
Protecting his officers is just one challenge confronting Toledo, who returned this year for a second hitch leading the island's largest law-enforcement agency.
He takes over a department tainted by scandal. His department lags mainland agencies in technology available for investigations. And a revolving door at headquarters -- Toledo is the fifth superintendent in five years -- has prevented consistent leadership at the top.
Commanders have fired hundreds of officers in recent years, including dozens charged with aiding drug smugglers.
More than 60 officers were charged in a pair of operations in 2001 and 2002, accused of protecting drug shipments, selling guns and drugs, returning seized cocaine and heroin to dealers, and helping to hide dealers during sting operations.
"I expect we're going to have a tough challenge ahead," says the former FBI supervisor who headed the Police Department from 1993 to 2001. "We need to get better at all levels."
It is taken as a measure of how seriously officials are taking crime here that Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá crossed political lines in January to appoint Toledo. The law-enforcement veteran's first tour as superintendent came under Gov. Pedro Rosselló, Acevedo's main opponent in last year's bitterly fought election campaign.
Toledo's appointment suggests a return to the mano dura, or "hard hand," against crime in the 1990s, when Rosselló called in National Guard troops to occupy public-housing projects and other high-crime areas. Crime fell after the raids, but residents complained about rights abuses.
Since his return, Toledo has supported proposals to close bars earlier, establish a curfew for youth and install security cameras in public places. He speaks of lengthening police-academy training for recruits from three to nine months, and adding in-service training for veterans. He wants to bring criminal databases and DNA analysis fully online.
In June, the governor announced a reorganization of the police force, including a new auxiliary superintendent of drugs, narcotics and illegal weapons who will focus on drug violence. He says he is ready to invest in new technology.
"This is something amazing," says Acevedo, who took office in January. "In Puerto Rico, we still don't have a DNA lab fully working. . . . We're among the few jurisdictions in the United States where the fingerprints are not digitalized as part of the FBI system. . . . The information system of the priors of every criminal and every criminal action in Puerto Rico, well, that system has never been updated."
Toledo speaks of professionalizing the department, increasing training, and expanding tools and techniques for investigation.
"We have to do preventive work, investigative work to identify not only the drug dealers, but the people that finance them -- the higher levels," he says. "Of course, those people are very well-protected, isolated, and that's why we need the federal government to be able to do wiretaps and go into the bank accounts."
Federal agents say they are taking advantage of new laws since Sept. 11, 2001 -- including provisions in the USA Patriot Act that allow them to track international monetary transactions more closely -- and increasing cooperation with foreign governments to reach higher into international criminal organizations.
In one operation that agents say illustrates the approach, police in October arrested 24 suspects simultaneously in Colombia, Venezuela, the Dutch island of St. Maarten, Spain, Puerto Rico and the United States.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which led the investigation, identified the defendants as leaders of a Colombian cartel that smuggled cocaine and heroin into the United States and extracted the proceeds through a money-laundering scheme called the Black Market Peso Exchange.
The operation reached into bank accounts as far away as Costa Rica and China; authorities seized $4.1 million in bank accounts, plus 14 properties in Colombia and drugs valued at $550,000.
"Before, it was just a matter of identifying organizations and trying to break them apart or to disrupt them," said Medina, who left San Juan in April to take over immigration and customs enforcement in Phoenix. "We're not disrupting anymore. We're dismantling, and ripping the organizations out by the roots and going all the way to the last line and taking them down and having them arrested. Not only here in the United States, but working in concert with the foreign governments as well . . . we're going after the people who thought they'd never be touchable."
Authorities scored a local victory in January with the arrests of 24 suspects accused of smuggling heroin into Puerto Rico from Colombia and Venezuela; the Dutch islands of Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten; and the British Virgin Island of Tortola. The DEA identified the suspects as members of a ring based in Bayamón and Ponce, Puerto Rico.
More recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration said last week that agents had dismantled drug rings in Mayagüez, Aguadilla and Cabo Rojo. Indictments named 42 defendants accused of selling heroin, crack, cocaine and marijuana in those west-coast towns.
Officials say other changes in the way they have done business since Sept. 11, 2001, are helping them score new successes. Those changes include increases in personnel and equipment, growing coordination among agencies and new laws that are allowing agents greater investigative powers.
But such gains can cut both ways. Though agencies have received greater resources and new tools that can help in the war on drugs, they are being directed to focus first on the war on terror.
"It's a higher priority," said Luis Fraticelli, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in San Juan.
Since Sept. 11, he says, the agency has diverted resources from the drug program to terrorism. To compensate, federal and local agencies are working more closely together and focusing on larger drug organizations.
"I do believe that the successes that we've had, let's say over the last year, are pretty significant targets," Fraticelli said. "If you have more drugs seized from one year to another, that's a good thing, because think of it this way: If you didn't seize that 300 tons of cocaine, that would have been 300 tons of cocaine that hit the streets."
But he added that such success can bring new problems.
"You can say, 'Hey, you have a lot more violence because you have less of the product, and they're fighting for control of the drug points.' "
The killing continues.
Last Thursday evening, police found the bullet-riddled body of 36-year-old Antonio López Marrero at an intersection in the Río Piedras section of San Juan. Twenty-six-year-old Leslie Rivera Wear died of gunshot wounds sustained Friday in the suburb of Bayamón. Brothers Ángel Mercado Ramos, 22, and Juan Román Ramos, 18, were gunned down Saturday on a street in the southern city of Ponce.
Critics say the government has overemphasized police crackdowns at the expense of prevention and treatment programs.
Psychologist Salvador Santiago Negrón, president of Carlos Albizu University, chaired a governor's panel that studied the causes of violence in Puerto Rico.
"One of the biggest problems that we have is that we are approaching this problem from a strictly enforcement model -- that is, punitive, police-type work from law enforcement only," said Santiago, a psychologist.
"We feel that's a big mistake," he said. "The problem is the generation of alternatives that that model brings is curfew hours, drug testing for everybody, closing the bars, random stopping people in the streets, cameras . . . all the security industry is having a field day in Puerto Rico producing those types of alternatives that all they do is erode our hard-won civil rights."
Dora Nevares Muñiz, a law professor at the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, helped to write Puerto Rico's current penal code.
In the revision that took effect this year, she authored provisions that allow judges to sentence some criminals to treatment for drug addiction instead of prison.
"[The police] have been aggressive for the last 20 years," she says. "That has not worked. That's not enough.
"This is basically a social problem, because as long as there are people willing to buy drugs, there are going to be people willing to make easy money on the drug market. You have to create opportunities for children and juveniles to get money legally."
Toledo agrees that law enforcement is only one part of the solution.
"Some of these problems are caused by unemployment, poverty, drug addiction," he said. "You have to reinforce the family values in Puerto Rico, which a large section has lost."
He is optimistic the island homicide rate can be reduced.
"Everybody has to work together," he says. "We have seen that in the past; we have seen that in other jurisdictions. I don't see why you can't do it. But we have to have a determination to fight the problem and to address the problem and to look for solutions. If you sit down and cross your arms and do nothing, then we will not succeed."
Matthew Hay Brown can be reached at email@example.com 787-729-9072.
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