After my much maligned article on whether or not Vieques Island was safe for tourists and a follow up showing an armed robbery of tourists; local media reports and personal stories strongly reinforced my position, things are terrible in Puerto Rico and on the island of Vieques and something must be done to fix it. The criticism I received was from people trying hard to keep the problems quiet and not put Vieques or Puerto Rico in a bad light.
This is nothing new. I’ve often been cautioned by friends and relatives to ‘go easy’ on Puerto Rico. Others have been more directly threatened for trying to do the right thing (like trying to save stray dogs) and I myself received a death threat or two while working for the U.S. Navy during the Vieques protests. But I digress…
Local daily newspaper Metro PR ran a headline and article: North American Community lives in terror on Vieques. The article quotes the Mayor using those words to describe how Americans living on the island have been living in fear due to the extraordinary crime wave that has hit Vieques in the last few years. (NOTE: American born residents are referred to as ‘Americanos’ or ‘Norte Americanos’ as if they were from a different country. All Puerto Ricans are Americans by birth.)
The numbers are clear. Vieques had 16 murders in 2013 and two in a week in August 2014 although the total number is down for the year. Armed robbery of locals and tourists along with petty theft continue despite an increased police presence and the arrest of the two men caught on video robbing a group of tourists while they ate dinner.
Vieques in many ways is a microcosm of the total problem of Puerto Rico.
This week 16 Puerto Rico police officers pled guilty to corruption charges for running a criminal organization from within the department. Were this an isolated incident, it would not be worth mentioning. However, it wasn’t long ago that nearly one hundred officers were caught by the FBI in a sting for offering to protect drug shipments. With this in mind, the increase of police presence in Vieques isn’t that comforting.
If you clicked on the links in the last paragraph you will have noticed something. Both major arrests and many others of government officials are being conducted by the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, not the local government. The local governments record on prosecuting corruption charges is abysmal, regardless of which party is in power.
This last month also marked the tragic anniversary of the kidnapping, rape and murder of a pregnant tourist near Ceiba Puerto Rico. The man was caught, but he did not receive the death penalty because Puerto Rico doesn’t have one, but desperately needs one.
Across Puerto Rico residents live in terror. A female family friend recounted of two times in the last two years that she has had to divert from her commute home from work to the nearest police station because she was being followed by a vehicle with completely tinted windows. You might laugh at the thought, but many Puerto Rican women have been taught that if followed by a car like that or any other vehicle, divert from your route; and head straight to the nearest police station. The pursuers will usually turn away and go look for another victim.
How many Puerto Rican women have been raped and threatened into not reporting it under these circumstances? I wish some of them would speak up and share their stories. It has gotten so bad that even smoking outside of a restaurant (because smoking is banned in any public space with a ‘roof’ (seriously), is dangerous because you can be mugged, shot, kidnapped or otherwise harmed in the few minutes it takes to puff a cigarette, especially if you are woman.
Its not just the bad economy that are driving native born Puerto Ricans off the island. Crime and corruption are also a major factor. Puerto Rico’s murder rate is five times the national average. While other violent crimes appears high but not to exceed the national average, personal experience and personal stories from others tell a very different story. While some may argue that Puerto Rico’s crime rate is no different than the urban centers of Detroit, Chicago, New York or LA, I respectfully submit that people don’t spend their hard earned money to visit the ghetto. They do spend that money to visit Puerto Rico, to invest in Puerto Rico and sometimes to live their because of the allure of its natural beauty.
Puerto Rico needs radical fundamental change at all levels. From Vieques Island, to San Juan the status quo is no longer acceptable.
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