Still, the bloody tide has barely receded. “In reality, all of San Juan is hot,” confesses Angel Martinez as he cruises away from the funeral home shooting toward the next crime scene: a triple homicide in the town of Canovanas, 10 minutes east of the capital.

Martinez guides his unmarked car east on highway PR-3, where suburbs give way to farmlands. The cruiser takes a turn up a steep hill covered in small, pastel cinderblock houses. At the bottom of the hill, a small bar is pockmarked with bullet holes. Gunmen fired more than 100 AK-47 rounds here last night, and a handful still lie scattered around the crime scene. A drainage ditch full of water is cloudy with blood.

“There was a fight here at the bar,” explains Ricardo Haddock, a second lieutenant. “A group left and came back to get their revenge.”

AK-47 bullet casings at a triple murder scene in Canovanas, east of San Juan.
Michael E. Miller
AK-47 bullet casings at a triple murder scene in Canovanas, east of San Juan.
Hector Pesquera, former head of the FBI's Miami office, oversees the much-maligned Puerto Rico Police Department.
Michael E. Miller
Hector Pesquera, former head of the FBI's Miami office, oversees the much-maligned Puerto Rico Police Department.

He adds with a sigh, “Up until last night, we had three less murders compared to this time last year. Now we have one murder more.”

Hector Camacho’s killing put Puerto Rico in headlines across the world, for all the wrong reasons. Already reeling from a record high murder rate and battered by 14 percent unemployment, the last thing Puerto Rico needed was to scare off tourists. Suddenly, the island’s slogan, “Puerto Rico Does It Better,” seemed less an invitation than an assassin’s snarl.

“People here are fearful,” Pesquera says. “It’s because there is indiscriminate shooting in public areas between [drug gangs], and innocent bystanders get hit.”

But even that statement is oversimplifying things. Many of the recent murders have terrified Puerto Ricans precisely because of their senselessness. “You cannot honk the horn of your vehicle because the person might shoot you,” says Sujeylee Ramos, the older sister of Julio Ramos Oliver, who was killed for spilling his drink on another man during January’s San Sebastian street festival. “It’s out of control.”

A deeper look at the past year’s most brutal crimes—and the stories of those affected by the bloodshed—illustrates even better than eye-popping stats why educated Puerto Ricans are fleeing to New York, Miami, and Texas like never before. Nearly 5 million Puerto Ricans now live in the mainland U.S., compared to just 3.6 million on the island. As the commonwealth shrinks by 15,000 people a year, Florida’s Puerto Rican population grows by 7,300 annually. Texas, a state with no prior history of immigration from the island, welcomes nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans a year now. They’re driven by a lack of jobs, but also by carnage.

“Last year there were 180 less murders than in 2011, but they were probably even more brutal and shocking,” says Luis Romero, the founder of anti-violence group Basta Ya! Romero should know: His own son was stabbed to death in 2011 while walking with his girlfriend. But recent murders have been so “ghastly,” Romero says, Puerto Rico is suffering from island-wide PTSD.

The string of shocking slayings began in November with Camacho’s killing in Bayamon. Despite warnings from his son, the ex-pugilist had recently returned to his native city after a long career spent mostly in New York City. He had earned worldwide fame and several titles by winning 79 fights (and losing just six) with a flamboyant style. He had sauntered into rings in outrageous outfits—from leopard pelts to a baby’s diaper—and made headlines for his marital and legal problems. In his prime, his lightning-quick reflexes in the ring made him all but untouchable.

Not so on Nov. 21, 2012. That’s when two men ambushed Camacho and his friend, a convicted felon named Adrian Mojica Moreno, as they sat in Mojica’s Mustang outside El Azuquita bar in Bayamon. Mojica was gunned down while trying to escape the car. Camacho was shot in the face.

The boxer clung to life for five days. But brain scans showed little activity, and his family eventually removed him from life support. There would be no Hollywood comeback for Camacho, only a lurid fight between girlfriends at his funeral. Just days later, an even more bizarre case exploded on late night television. On Nov. 29, a well known publicist named José Enrique Gómez Saladín went missing. Soon, footage emerged showing Gómez being forced to take out $500 from an ATM. Four days later he was found burned and beaten to death with lead pipes.

On the day that police announced they had arrested four suspects—two men and two women—for kidnapping Gómez in a seedy neighborhood, a popular TV show called SuperXclusivo aired a segment about the killing. The show’s main character, a puppet named La Comay (slang for “godmother”), stunned viewers by suggesting Gómez got what he deserved. “I ask myself if this killing was not involved in sex, drugs, homosexuality, and prostitution,” La Comay said. “Did he get what he was looking for?” A boycott forced the program off the air weeks later, but the damage had been done. The Comay scandal seemed to expose a newfound heartlessness, as if boricuas had become numb to the violence.

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