San Juan, Puerto Rico (Miami Hearld)- Along with hurricanes, a wounded economy and political turmoil, Puerto Rico is facing another threat: a crime wave.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez called for an emergency meeting of her security council Tuesday after six people were murdered in Rio Piedras — part of metropolitan San Juan.
The Monday night shooting remains under investigation, but it’s just the latest in a string of increasingly brazen murders that threaten to tarnish the image of the Caribbean island that relies on tourism.
The latest incident occurred at 6:46 p.m. on Monday, a local holiday marking Columbus Day. Footage shared on social media showed the housing complex turned into a war zone of automatic weapons fire, screaming residents and sirens. On Tuesday, police said they were still trying to recover more than 1,000 high-caliber shells from the area where they found five people dead. Another person died Tuesday at the hospital.
While the homicide rate is down for the year, residents of the U.S. territory could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. On Sunday, two men were gunned down in broad daylight on one of the island’s busiest highways; on Sept. 8, police found four bodies within 24 hours; and in August, a recently released convict was executed at 9:30 a.m. in front of the central government office in San Juan.
“The situation on the street is incredibly worrisome and alarming because what we see on the streets — violent events in places and at times that show a clear sense of impunity,” Puerto Rican legislator Jesús Manuel Ortiz, who is also a member of the security committee, told Wapa Radio. “Criminals know they’re not going to get caught.”
Ortiz is among those calling for Puerto Rican Police Chief Henry Escalera to resign.
So far this year, Puerto Rico has seen 483 homicides, down from 515 during the same period in 2018. With a population of 3.2 million, Puerto Rico’s murder rate stands at 15 homicides per 100,000 people — higher than any U.S. state. Louisiana has the highest rate on the mainland at 11.4 murders per 100,000 people. Florida, by comparison, has a homicide rate of 10 per 100,000 residents.
Puerto Rico, like many islands in the Caribbean, is a transshipment point for narcotics coming out of South America on their way to the mainland United States and Europe. And police say the vast majority of the murders committed this year (46 percent) are related to drug trafficking. While no suspects have been identified in Monday’s shooting, police said they believe it may also be drug-related.
Justice Secretary Dennise Longo asked the island for patience and for witnesses to come forward.
“This is a complex crime scene,” she said of Monday’s shooting. “We need the time and space to carry out an exhaustive and thoughtful investigation.”
Crime is just the latest headache for residents who are still trying to recover from a deadly 2017 hurricane season and a decade-long recession. In addition, the island’s previous governor, Ricardo Rosselló, was driven out of office in August amid corruption allegations and a scandal involving inappropriate text messages.
Gov. Vázquez, who has been in office less than three months, called for the emergency meeting with the justice department, and police commanders from San Juan and Bayamón. Formerly the Secretary of Justice, Vázquez said citizen security continues to be her top priority.
In a statement late Monday, she said she was calling the security personnel for an update on existing security plans, and she suggested more are in the works.
“At the meeting, I will request urgent changes,” she said.
But it’s unclear what changes might be in the works. After the meeting, Police Chief Escalera said his forces would make “adjustments, but I won’t go into detail.”
And he also promised to rid housing complexes or residenciales — like the one where the shooting took place — of drug gangs.
“We have a message for criminals,” he said. “The police force and the decent people of the residenciales are in control.