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Pesquera brushes aside the decade-old accusation. And when it comes to reforming Puerto Rico’s shambolic police force, he is blunt. Some degree of corruption is inevitable in a country where drug money is rampant and cops’ salaries are minuscule (the median was $31,000 a year in 2011). But he denies that brutality and crime are deeply rooted.
“Like any institution, there are going to be guys that beat people,” he says with another shrug. “It’s not the institution’s fault unless you don’t do anything about it.”
Wanda Figueroa isn’t convinced. “This cop didn’t kill some street thug. He didn’t kill a drug dealer,” she says. “He killed a good, honest, hardworking person.”
Hector Pesquera is not surprised that cocaine was found inside the car that became Hector Camacho’s tomb. After all, 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s murders are drug-related, the police chief claims.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of our murder problem,” Pesquera says. “We need help fighting the flow of drugs. That’s what’s killing us.”
Murders in Puerto Rico have fallen slightly since their 2011 peak, but violence on the island could soon spike once again, Pesquera warns, as ever more drugs and violence pour in while the U.S. and Mexico clamp harder on their border. Pesquera’s repeated requests for federal aid have fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the sequestration cuts hitting Coast Guard and customs agents mean he’ll likely see less help than ever this year.
To see the challenge firsthand, the police chief arranged for New Times to spend a night in a squad car patrolling the most dangerous parts of the city. Sitting in an unmarked Chevy Caprice in the shadows overlooking La Perla—a particularly notorious slum wedged between Old San Juan and the sea—police officer Juan Nieves and his partner, Osvaldo Merced, point out a drug deal under way.
“Check out these two guys. They are looking to score,” says Merced, a young cop with a buzz-cut and superhero-sized shoulders. A pair of teenagers in black rock ’n’ roll T-shirts approach a stone staircase plunging toward the ocean. An old man perched next to the stairs says something lost in the surf. “That’s the lookout,” Merced says.
The teens disappear down the staircase, then emerge a few minutes later. The one in a Rolling Stones shirt drops something into the old man’s hand. The two then head toward one of San Juan’s most popular nightclubs.
Tonight, Merced and Nieves aren’t making arrests, just showing a journalist how the city works. But in 2011, Puerto Rican police did conduct a rare raid of La Perla, arresting nearly 70 members of a drug ring including its leader, Jorge “Truck Face” Gómez-González.
“You can tell where the bichotes (big shots) live because they have the fanciest homes,” Merced says, pointing to several three-story houses. “They have three, four Mercedes and girlfriends with bodies sculpted by the best plastic surgeons in the world.”
“They are better than us,” adds Nieves, a salt-and-pepper-haired veteran who is two days from completing 25 years on the force. “We arrested Truck Face but someone else just took his place.”
There are growing signs that the whole War on Drugs is the same kind of a zero-sum game—not just in La Perla, but in all of Puerto Rico and around the region.
“The Caribbean drug trade is both an old and new story,” says Bagley, the organized crime expert. “Old routes have come back into play. But we haven’t seen this level of criminality and corruption in Puerto Rico before. The island is really suffering.” For now, Pesquera is pleading for help, including at a recent meeting with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who pledged support. “I don’t think she was blowing smoke up my ass,” he says. Yet when the Coast Guard unveiled a fleet of 12 new cutters, they went to Miami and Key West—where drugs rarely arrive via the ocean these days—instead of Puerto Rico.
Truth is, there’s little willpower in D.C. to spend heavily on an island of 3.6 million people whose ballots don’t count. Perhaps that’s why Puerto Ricans are debating louder than ever their identity as a U.S. Commonwealth. When boricuas went to the polls last November, 54 percent rejected the status quo. But the vote was split between those who favored independence, statehood, or remaining a commonwealth. Fortuño—the governor who appointed Pesquera—was dumped out of office.
The chaos and uncertainty goes far beyond the ballot box. The son of a previous police chief was recently arrested for using his late father’s estate as a drug stash. Pesquera, meanwhile, isn’t sure whether he will remain police chief beyond the end of March, when he is scheduled to return to Miami. His department remains in flux: 17,000 cops with no computers, frayed uniforms, aging equipment, and—if the fatal shooting of Saul Medina Figueroa is any indication—more than a few bad apples.