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Is Puerto Rico becoming a narco-state?

The island's murder rate, which will likely set a record this year, and a police force that a top official at the US Justice Department called 'one of the worst I've seen' both fit the definition of a narco-state.

By Elyssa PachicoGuest blogger / December 16, 2011



With over 1,000 murders in Puerto Rico this year, some commentators have warned that the US territory is on the verge of becoming a "narco-state" that has been infiltrated by the drug trade.

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Amid this record high in homicides and lagging police reform, a recent article in the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia said that the US territory is on the verge of becoming a "narco-state." The article lists 15 characteristics of narco-states, as defined by the United Nations, and concludes that 12 of them apply to Puerto Rico.

There is good reason for concern about Puerto Rico. The island is set to record the highest murder rate on record, beating the previous highest, which was 1994. In September, a top official at the US Justice Department called Puerto Rico's police force "one of the worst I've seen."

But not only is El Nuevo Dia playing fast and loose with the definition of a narco-state, it is blowing Puerto Rico's crime problem out of proportion. It's true that police suffer widespread corruption in their ranks, but not that drug traffickers have infiltrated state forces so deeply that they are dictating policy and openly backing politicians. Suriname is a good example of such a scenario, as is Colombia in the early 1990s. State institutions in Guatemala and Honduras, for example, have been supplanted by drug cartels to a far more serious degree than Puerto Rico.

It is a mistake to think that this recent surge of homicides in Puerto Rico came out of nowhere. Murder rates, which held steady at about 19 per 100,000 inhabitants since 1980, began to climb steadily after 2005. The third most violent year on record came in 2009, prompting Governor Luis Fortuno to deploy the National Guard on the streets. The current murder rate hovers at about 26 per 100,000, more than five times that of the US.

Puerto Rico's high homicide rate is typically blamed on the fact that it has 270 miles of coastline and is nestled strategically between the US and the drug producing countries of South America. But there is little evidence that 2011's record wave of violence is because more drugs are passing through Puerto Rico northwards. Even the US Justice Department says that the "overall drug threat" to the island has "remained relatively consistent" in recent years.

The big change has to do with the island's domestic drug trade. Since two of Puerto Rico's most powerful drug traffickers, Angel Ayala Vasquez and Jose Figueroa Agosoto, were arrested in 2009 and 2010 respectively, their organizations have splintered. The instability means that it has become more important to control domestic distribution spots. As most of those places, known as "puntos," are based in the country's 332 public housing projects, this means the local gangs dedicated to protecting their punto have more incentive to respond aggressively to threats.

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