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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.

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According to one Justice Department report, not only does this mean more retail-level drug dealers are fighting to regain control of more puntos, but they are more willing to use indiscriminate violence to do so. Instead of picking their targets carefully, gang members are more willing to enter with guns blazing. Massacres which kill innocent bystanders, frequently children, have become more deadly. Police have also said it is more common for distributors to pay their employees with weapons instead of cash.

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One of the most intense gang wars involves fugitive gang leader Jaime Davila Reyes, alias "Peluche," and his rival Carlos Morales Davila, alias "Cano Navarro," who was trumpeted as Puerto Rico's "most dangerous drug trafficker" when security forces arrested him in November. The feud allegedly started when Davila stole several of Morales' distribution points in the eastern municipality of Humacao. Morales responded by moving in on Davila's territory in Caguas, 20 miles south of the capital, where one of the nation's largest housing projects is located. The wave of homicides unleashed by this move is partly responsible for the spike of murders in 2011.

But a plague of turf wars over other, smaller housing projects also caused the body count to rise. In Manati municipality, the gang leaders responsible for overseeing three puntos have decided to join together and fight a rival group, based in the Campo Alegre housing project. In Bayamon municipality, the former stronghold of drug trafficker Angel Ayala Vasquez, alias "Angelo Millones," another fight has broken out over control of the 22 housing projects found here. These kinds of highly localized conflicts, complete with their own intricate histories of shifting alliances and betrayals, are found all over Puerto Rico.

Often, those who control Puerto Rico's puntos do much more than oversee retail drug distribution. They control the sale of contraband goods or stolen car parts. They host concerts and back nightclubs. In some projects, gang leaders even decide who is allowed to sell pirated DVDs and CDs in the neighborhood. Those who go against the local gang may find themselves targeted in a retribution killing.

Puerto Rico's geographic importance as a transhipment point between the Caribbean and the US is not going to change. And judging from the patterns of violence on the island in the past 20 years, with most of the killings caused by drug trafficking turf wars, the fundamental cause of these homicide outbreaks hasn't changed much either. As the US Justice Department pointed out this year, Puerto Rico's police force have a long way to go before they are capable of meeting these challenges. Until there are sweeping changes in the island's security policy, the murder rate in the projects may keep on climbing.

--- Elyssa Pachico is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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