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News (Media Awareness Project) - US DC: Drug Violence At America's Other Southern Border
Title:US DC: Drug Violence At America's Other Southern Border
Published On:2011-11-25
Source:Washington Post (DC)
Fetched On:2011-11-28 06:00:57

Last Friday night, a married couple entering their home in the town of
Hatillo, Puerto Rico, was startled by two armed burglars. The husband
was fatally shot, becoming the 1,000th murder victim of 2011. This was
Puerto Rico's highest annual homicide toll - until the record was
surpassed the next day.

On average, someone is murdered every 7 1/2 hours in Puerto Rico, a
U.S. territory populated by 3.7 million American citizens. At least
half of these murders involve drug trafficking organizations, whose
growing presence has bred a culture of violence that emboldens
criminals and threatens the lives of innocent people. The homicide and
unemployment rates in Puerto Rico are higher than those of any U.S.

Much has been said about the Mexican drug wars that have left 40,000
dead since 2006. Yet proportionally, the level of violence in Puerto
Rico is higher than in Mexico. Last year there were 26 homicides for
every 100,000 Puerto Ricans vs. 18 for every 100,000 Mexicans,
according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Puerto Rican police
are clearly overwhelmed.

One would think the federal government would see its obligation to
intervene. Controlling the flow of drugs, dirty money and illegal
weapons is a national priority. Yet Washington has been slow to react.

Violent crime was not always a concern in Puerto Rico. Throughout the
1970s, safety in the San Juan metropolitan area was comparable to that
in similar-size cities in the continental United States. This changed
in the 1980s, when Colombian cartels flooded the island with drugs.
Criminal activity, no longer confined to drug hot spots, quickly
spread throughout the San Juan metro area.

In time, a fragile truce was brokered. Walls went up around
neighborhoods, not just the affluent ones, and security guards were
hired. Puerto Rican governors periodically activated the National
Guard to back up police on drug raids. It was a shocking display of
force, but residents got used to it.

The recent outburst of violence, however, is more intense. It has been
fueled by the recession and, indirectly, by Mexico's aggressive drug
interdiction campaign.

The recession devastated the Puerto Rican economy. From 2006 to 2010,
gross national product and employment there contracted at a rate three
times higher than that of the United States overall, according to the
Center for the New Economy. This economic downturn coincided with
crackdowns on drug cartels by the Mexican and U.S. governments, which
caused some drug traffic to shift to Caribbean routes. Puerto Rico's
unimpeded access to the mainland made it an ideal entry point to the
U.S. drug market. The Drug Enforcement Administration has reported a
marked increase in drug seizures in the past two or three years. When
drug traffic increased during this period, plenty of impoverished
young men were willing to move it along for an easy buck.

Puerto Rico's police force has approximately 17,000 officers - making
it the second-largest U.S. force - but is still ill-equipped to combat
this crisis. In a September report, the Justice Department accused the
police department of constitutional violations, corruption and
statistical manipulations.

For more than a year, the Puerto Rican government has sought help from
the Justice and Homeland Security departments. Attracting and
retaining federal agents in Puerto Rico is difficult. The local
offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives;
the DEA; and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are severely
understaffed. Puerto Rican officials have also complained that the
Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection lack equipment to
intercept drug shipments.

Since 2008, Puerto Rico has received about $260 million in direct
federal support for crime prevention and forensic science, judicial
systems, police and corrections, crime victims and rehabilitation of
substance abusers. During the same period, Washington has allocated
$1.6 billion for the Merida Initiative, a U.S.-Mexico partnership to
combat drug production and traffic in the region.

The U.S. response to the Mexican drug war is appropriate. Mexican drug
smuggling and spillover violence are a national security threat.
Puerto Rico deserves an equivalent response. It is the main drug
pipeline in the Caribbean, and the safety of almost 4 million
Americans is threatened by the presence of drug organizations.

Drug violence has spilled over the U.S. border - just not the border
most Americans think of. If drug cartels set up shop along our
southern border states and their murder rates increased fivefold, to
the level found in Puerto Rico, the federal response would be
immediate. As American citizens, Puerto Ricans deserve the same

The writer is project director for media diversity initiatives at the
National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
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