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.
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.
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.