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At the head of that effort is Pesquera, a 66-year-old with a white beard, glasses, and a sailor’s mouth. “Every morning, I look at the stats and ask myself, ‘What could we have done to prevent this?’” he says from his corner office. In these particular cases, not much, he concludes. “But guess who is blamed?”
Before Pesquera can save the island from chaos, he first must first fix an antiquated police department infamous for graft and brutality.
“There have been scandals about police corruption and cops killing civilians in the streets for years in Puerto Rico,” says Bruce Bagley, an expert on organized crime in Latin America and professor at the University of Miami.
This isn’t the first time waves of violence have broken over Puerto Rico. Perched at the strategic entrance to the Caribbean, the Connecticut-sized island has a long and bloody history. Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Léon slaughtered Taíno natives beginning in 1508. Over the centuries, slave uprisings and independence movements were put down with deadly force. By 1898, the colony had won a degree of autonomy, only for the Spanish-American War to transfer control to the United States.
When Puerto Rican politicians voted for independence in 1914, the U.S. responded by granting boricuas U.S. citizenship—just in time to be drafted for World War I. It was another 30 years before Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own governor.
Under U.S. rule, the island became a popular vacation spot. But by the 1980s, with Colombian cocaine flowing through Puerto Rico to South Florida, violence grew endemic. Murders fell in the 1990s as drug routes shifted to Central America and Mexico, but in 2006, newly elected Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared an assault on cartels. Two years later, the U.S. launched its own $1.6 billion Merida Initiative to combat gangs.
“That is why in the past three years Puerto Rico has become increasingly visible in regard to drug scandals,” Bagley says. “This is an unintended consequence of the pressure being brought in Mexico and Central America.”
Today, drugs from Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic stream in on jet skis and cigarette boats. “Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, illegal contraband that makes it to the island is unlikely to be subjected to further U.S. Customs inspections,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), head of the Homeland Security committee, during a hearing last year.
McCaul isn’t the only official worried about the trend. Drugs arrive via “internal conspiracies entrenched in [San Juan’s] Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport” as well as ports and airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Jacksonville, and New York City, a source at the Drug Enforcement Agency tells the Miami New Times. With more than 2 million Puerto Ricans in Florida and New York alone, there’s perfect cover for smugglers. Weapons, meanwhile, move in the other direction, often on cruise ships, according to the DEA official.
“Right now, somewhere on the streets of New York, Miami, or maybe a few blocks away from where we sit in Washington, drug dealers are selling cocaine, heroin, or marijuana. These drugs entered the United States through the wide open back door,” McCaul said at the June 21 hearing.
Pesquera, who’d been appointed chief a few months before the hearing, listened quietly in the audience as then-Gov. Luis Fortuño accused the feds of having “no strategy.” Puerto Rican by birth, Pesquera spent 27 years working for the FBI, during which he ran the agency’s Miami office from 1998 until his retirement in 2003, and oversaw infamous cases including the “Cuban Five” spy ring, Irish Republican Army gun-runners, and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Last March, at Fortuño’s request, he took leave from his job as head of security at the Port of Miami to try and save his homeland.
Today he looks exhausted. Pesquera lives close to his office but is—by law—watched over night and day by heavily armed guards. (“I do go out sometimes without them knowing,” he says with a smirk.) He is ferried to work in a brand-new, gleaming black SUV with lead in the doors. Even the windows in his corner office are bulletproof.
Amid the violence and paranoia, Pesquera has instituted practical reforms: updating aging equipment, improving training, and winning public support by sacking bad cops. And there have been small improvements. In 2012, murders fell to just under 1,000 from their peak the year before, thanks to an odd arrangement with federal prosecutors. (The first two months of 2013 saw 148 new corpses on the island—a shocking total but slightly below the same period last year.)
Unlike anywhere else in America, Puerto Rican law allows anyone—even accused murderers—to bond out of jail. Drug dealers often spring out, only to skip court, disappear, and keep on killing. “We’ve had guys wearing [electronic] ankle bracelets murdering people,” Pesquera says. In the past year, however, the DOJ has increasingly used federal gun charges, which prohibit bond, to keep criminals off the street. “We’re sending two flights a week to the U.S. because we can’t hold them all,” the police chief says.