By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
That shooting is one of hundreds of cases of alleged brutality by the Puerto Rican Police Department, which was slammed in a 2011 DOJ report on “the staggering level of crime and corruption involving PRPD officers” including drug dealing, gun running, and murder. A 2012 ACLU probe, meanwhile, determined that PRPD is “a dysfunctional and recalcitrant police department that has run amok for years. Use of excessive or lethal force is routine, and civil and human rights violations are rampant.”
Pesquera disputes those findings—“I don’t care about all that special agenda crap,” he says—but to critics, Figueroa’s story shows why many Puerto Ricans fear cops more than thugs.
“Police here are like an enormous octopus with its tentacles in everything,” she says. “They do whatever they want.”
A tiny woman with bleached-blond hair, Figueroa has worked at Taco Maker for 23 years, rising to manager and raising her three kids by herself, bringing them to work to earn an honest living.
On the day of the shooting, Figueroa and Adrian, then 20, had been working at the restaurant. Her daughter, Zuleyka Perez, and her son Saul had been visiting Saul’s five-month-old baby in the hospital. They arrived in separate cars, bearing the same good news: The kid was recovering from a bacterial infection.
The trouble started, everyone agrees, when Zuleyka parked her car in the Taco Maker lot and found Officer Alfredo Delgado Molina behind her on his motorcycle. “You ran the light,” he told her. Saul soon walked over, and Figueroa came outside.
That’s when the facts become murky. Figueroa and her daughter say Delgado snapped, yelling, “If you’re not a judge or a lawyer, you need to get the fuck back inside!” When Saul demanded he not talk to his mother that way, they say the cop struck Saul, then—when Adrian ran out to help—pulled his gun and started shooting.
“We aren’t bad people,” Figueroa says with a sob, standing in the spot outside Taco Maker where she watched Saul die. “We all work in the same place, stay out of trouble. I raised all three kids by myself, as best as I could. They aren’t criminals. And then they take them away like this? It’s difficult.”
The police dispute that story. Delgado, who couldn’t be reached for comment, said in a statement that the brothers had hit him in the face, knocking out a tooth. (“It was either his life or theirs,” his supervisor added.) Cops also claimed to have found a metal pipe at the scene used to beat Delgado.
Pesquera adamantly defends the officer, who was cleared by the Police’s Special Investigations Department. “These two guys came out and hit the officer,” Pesquera says. “He defended himself.”
In fact, Pesquera says he wants his cops to act just like Delgado: “If you challenge a police officer and you bring a weapon, expect to be shot at.”
Figueroa’s struggle didn’t end with Saul’s death or Adrian’s long recovery, though. Incredibly, both mother and son were slapped with five criminal counts ranging from assault to obstruction of justice. Under a law passed by Fortuño, they both face 99 years in jail because the alleged crimes resulted in a death—namely, Saul’s.
“They are blaming us for my own son’s death,” Figueroa says in disbelief, raising her pant leg to reveal an electronic monitoring bracelet.
Whoever’s story you believe, there’s no question that cases like the Figueroas’ exacerbate Pesquera’s challenge. Consider the DOJ’s 2011 findings, including that trigger-happy cops often unload rounds without reason, “unnecessarily injur(ing) hundreds of people and kill(ing) numerous others,” usually in poor areas.
If that accusation weren’t bad enough, many Puerto Rican cops are straight-up criminals. Between 2005 and 2010, more than 1,700 PRPD officers were arrested on charges ranging from theft and assault to drug trafficking and murder, the ACLU found. The FBI arrested 61 islander cops in one swoop in 2010, accusing them of protecting drug traffickers. Officers killed 21 people in 2010 and 2011, including the recent, fatal shooting of an unarmed 14-year-old. “The PRPD is using excessive force as a substitute for community policing,” the ACLU report concluded.
Pesquera counters that he’s already fired more cops in 10 months than his predecessors did in four years. When he discovered there were 4,000 pending internal investigations, plus another 7,000 awaiting adjudication from the legal department, he made them a priority. “We are down to 700 that still need to be investigated,” he says.
But Pesquera’s own record isn’t spotless. Back in 2003, New Times reported on a DOJ investigation into his close friendship with convicted Cuban felon Camilo Padreda, a pre-Castro police officer who specialized in bribing city officials. Pesquera let him hang around the FBI offices so much that employees eventually reported their concerns to outside agencies. One cop recounted seeing Pesquera accept a gold watch from the crook.