By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Those fears were only stoked by the San Sebastian killing, in which a fisherman named Julio Ramos Oliver died over a spilled drink. The brazen murder happened just after midnight on Jan. 20, as San Juan still shook with the four-day SanSe fiesta. More than 100,000 Puerto Ricans were packed onto the narrow, cobblestone calles of old downtown for the year’s biggest party.
At 12:52 a.m., Ramos headed down a packed side street. As he raised a beer can to his lips, however, the 32-year-old fisherman clattered into the back of the man in front of him. The man spun around, his white jersey dripping with beer. Ramos apologized but, it was too late. The man raised his shirt to reveal a pistol. “We’re prepared,” he said. Ramos reportedly removed a knife from his pocket and answered, “So am I.”
As the two men stared each other down, a third figure emerged from the crowd behind Ramos. A gun muzzle flashed. The fisherman fell to the ground, blood spurting from his throat onto the cobblestones. The gunmen fled, but not before blasting two more rounds into the dying man’s head.
Sujeylee Ramos was there that night beneath the totem pole, but left shortly before her brother was shot. Her teenage niece tried to revive Julio when cops failed to do anything.
“What really bothers me is that it happened right in front of the police,” she says of the shooting. “They didn’t even chase the shooters.”
The bloody tide kept rising. On Jan. 23, 24-year-old Steven Cruzado López was shot in the back on a basketball court in San Germán after another player took offense to a foul. Less than a week later, a man and his wife were killed hours after abandoning the island’s witness protection program.
None of that compared to the carnage of Feb. 1. A family of seven was crossing the street near their housing project in San Juan when a stolen car careened into them. The collision killed six, including a grandmother, her granddaughter, and four great-grandchildren.
That crime illustrates another regular challenge for police: the driver, 21-year-old Jonathan Soto Bonilla—nicknamed “787” for the Puerto Rican area code tattooed on his neck and already a suspect in a double murder linked to drugs—fled the scene on foot before catching a flight hours later to New York City.
Soto is far from the first fugitive to flee to the mainland to avoid justice. In 2011, another 21-year-old drug dealer named Luis Valdez Meléndez fled to New York after shooting a rival nine times in the head and spraying a crowd with bullets. The reverse is also common. In the summer of 2009, for instance, nine people were killed in drug skirmishes in Buffalo. When authorities cracked down on the gangs, many members fled to Puerto Rico. Last year, a New Jersey marijuana trafficker named Felipe Cantres-Sanjurjo wanted for two murders was caught in Puerto Rico. This January, officials in Camden charged 36 members of a heroin ring linked to the Ñetas, a powerful gang operating inside Puerto Rico’s prisons.
“These guys will go from Puerto Rico to New York because something happens in Puerto Rico and they have got to run,” says a recently retired veteran NYC gang investigator, who asked that his name not be used. “Other guys come here because of the drug trade or because they are no longer in good graces with their gang [on the island]. ... It’s definitely a strong network.”
Despite all the press and police response, few of Puerto Rico’s recent, grisly murders have been solved. In some, such as Camacho’s killing, cops don’t even have suspects. And even if they make arrests, witnesses are often too afraid to testify.
“Most of these cases are not resolved,” says Sujeylee Ramos. “If you’re a criminal you’ll do anything because you know you’ll never be caught.”
Wanda Figueroa walked out of work just in time to see her two sons get shot.
It was a muggy afternoon in Manatí, a city of strip malls surrounded by jagged green hills to the west of San Juan. Figueroa had gone into the Taco Maker parking lot to meet her 22-year-old daughter and her youngest son, Saul, but she found him in a shouting match with a stranger holding a club.
She watched in horror as the man struck her 19-year-old over the head, sending him crashing to the pavement, and as her older son, Adrian, stormed out of the restaurant and grabbed the man’s weapon. Then the man pulled out a gun. He sprayed Adrian four times in the chest, shoulder, and foot, turned, and sank two fatal shots into Saul’s stomach. Finally, he lifted the gun toward Figueroa and pulled the trigger. Click. It was out of ammunition.
It wasn’t a robber or a drug dealer tearing apart Figueroa’s family on April 27, though. The barrel she was starting down was government-issued. Her son’s killer was a cop.