EYES INSIDE – LATIN AMERICA
The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has once again become a primary battleground in the U.S. government’s grueling war on drugs. Drug-related violence in Puerto Rico, a U.S. protectorate, has claimed more than 850 victims so far this year.
In the past two weeks, U.S. federal law enforcement officers have busted three dangerous drug trafficking organizations, arresting their leaders, including a local politician, who also happens to be the son of an influential mayor.
Traffickers in Puerto Rico have begun mimicking their counterparts in Mexico by decapitating rivals and leaving their bodies along the side of roads as gruesome messages for other foes.
Dozens of weapons, including AK-47s and high caliber pistols, are confiscated each month. Investigators say many criminals are now using U.S. postal and delivery services to have them sent to the island from the U.S. mainland.
Federal law enforcement believes that traffickers are also financing the political campaigns of some local lawmakers, especially those serving in the island’s legislature. According to the San Juan daily El Vocero, the FBI has several active investigations into some politicians to determine whether they are profiting from narcos.
"It is raining money and drugs here in Puerto Rico," Pedro Janer, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Caribbean division, tells CBS News.
This past week, agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) arrested the son of the mayor of the town of Cánovanas after he was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly being one of the leaders of an organization that imported more than 1,000 kilos of marijuana from Mexico through California.
The arrest of 28-year-old Christian Soto, who serves as a member of the Cánovanas city council, sent shock waves throughout Puerto Rican society. His father, Mayor José “Chemo” Soto, is an influential member of Governor Luis Fortuño’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party. The son was planning on running of a seat in the House of Representatives next year.
Criminology experts agree that money from drug trafficking is fueling parts of the economy and has influenced the way politics is played out on this island of 3.8 million. “Whether Puerto Rico has become a ‘narco society’ or not, is still up for debate among academics, but it is a fact that an economic structure from drug trafficking has been institutionalized,” criminologist Gary Gutiérrez tells Inter News Service.
Even U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez acknowledged this week that many police officers are on traffickers’ payrolls. Her comments reflect the conclusions of a three-year U.S. Justice Department inquiry into the Puerto Rico Police Department. In a scathing report released Sept. 8, the government accused the force of committing rampant and successive civil rights violations while citing dozens of cases of officers who have been arrested or convicted for protecting drug traffickers.
In October 2010, the FBI conducted its largest police corruption operation in its history when agents arrested 89 local law enforcement officers for drug and firearm violations. Among them were 61 members of the police force.
With a 16% unemployment rate, many youths have resorted to helping drug gangs distribute narcotics at different points across the island, especially in public housing complexes. The battle for control of these points has pushed the island’s homicide murder rate, which many expect this year will break the 1994 all time high record of 993 murders.
In the early 1990s, the federal government embarked on a major anti-trafficking offense when investigators discovered that Puerto Rico was increasingly being used as springboard for South American cartels to get their narcotics into the United States.
The mainly Spanish-speaking residents of this U.S. territory say they are fed up with what they say is lack of will by local law enforcement, which has allowed a return to the drug wars of an earlier decade. They have begun to hold public protests to demand an end to violence. But in a recent radio interview, Police Superintendent Emilio Díaz Colón insisted that the force was working hard to catch drug traffickers.
Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting resident commissioner in U.S. Congress and a former justice secretary, publicly called on the superintendent to crack down harder or step aside. Pierluisi and Díaz Colón are members of the same governing party.
Photo - U.S. DEA