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The heavy wooden doors of St. Cecilia’s church slowly swung open. First came the funereal music, floating from the rust-colored building onto the chilly concrete of Spanish Harlem. Then came the casket, wrapped in the blue, white, and blood red of the Puerto Rican flag.
“¡Que viva el Macho!” shouted hundreds of mourners from behind police barriers along 106th Street as the coffin was loaded into a gleaming black hearse. Boricua boxing legend Hector “Macho” Camacho had returned to New York City to be buried. But a shadow hung over the Dec. 1 ceremony. Instead of celebration of the wild life and stellar career of the professional athlete—known for the curly lock of hair on his forehead, the gold bling around his neck, and his escapades with women as much as his many championship belts—Camacho’s death triggered panic among Puerto Ricans from the island to New York.
“Macho” Camacho’s life had ended 10 days earlier, when cops found the 50-year-old slumped inside a Ford Mustang outside a bar in his native city of Bayamon. Next to Camacho was a friend with nine baggies of cocaine in his pockets and a body shredded by bullets. An empty baggie lay between them in the car.
It wasn’t just the boxing legend’s bloody end that troubled boricuas, though. Camacho’s mysterious murder was simply the highest profile yet in a relentless wave of killings over the past three years.
In 2011, the tiny island’s record 1,136 homicides put it on par with war zones like the Congo and Sudan in terms of murders per capita. Last year was little better. And in the past four months, a series of particularly horrific slayings have terrorized the tropical paradise. First, El Macho was murdered in November. Two weeks later, a well-known publicist was kidnapped, set on fire, and beaten to death. In January, a fisherman was shot in the face after accidentally spilling his drink on someone during a packed San Juan street festival. And just last month, a gangster ran his car over an entire family, killing six.
But for New York state’s more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, the boxer’s death hit hardest of all. Camacho’s brutal killing signaled that the “isle of enchantment” has become bewitched by violence. A U.S. government crackdown on drugs coming through Mexico has only pushed contraband into the Caribbean, making the American commonwealth into the newest nexus for narco-traffickers.
“If this were anywhere else in the States, it would have created a national security crisis by now,” says Puerto Rico’s police chief, Hector Pesquera, of the sky-high murder rate, roughly seven times the national average. “But we are out of sight and out of mind.”
Yet Americans who ignore the island do so at their own peril. As Puerto Rican politicians make an unprecedented push to become our 51st state, the commonwealth has become more central than ever to the United States’ drug and crime problems. Pesquera estimates that 80 percent of the narcotics entering Puerto Rico end up in East Coast cities, particularly Miami and New York. Guns and money move in the opposite direction, and fugitives flow freely back and forth to frustrate officials. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are pouring into Florida, New York, and Texas to escape the gunfire gripping their homeland.
Pesquera’s police force is outgunned and overmatched. To make matters worse, rampant corruption and civil rights violations dog the department, which, at 17,000 employees, is the second biggest in the nation. Whether because of these doubts or the spiraling national debt, the feds have been reluctant to help. Something has to give.
“This is the United States of America, whether people like it or not,” Pesquera says. “We are the country’s third border. If we don’t protect it, you guys are fucked.”
By 10 a.m. the blood has already disappeared from Calle Saint Just. Not cleaned up, like the scores of AK-47 cartridges that were scattered across the intersection like rice after a wedding. Instead, the blood is just gone, returned to the Puerto Rican earth.
“The trucks roll by and spread it all over the place,” says Officer Angel Martinez, a gruff, blue-eyed homicide detective.
Like most murders here, the blood belongs to gangsters who have gunned each other down, Martinez says. Around 9 p.m., a black SUV full of drug dealers ambushed its rivals on this industrial stretch of east San Juan. Three men fled inside a funeral home parking lot. It was a fitting place to die. The dealers cornered them, then mowed them down with assault rifles. One man survived; the others bled out on the dirty pavement. In the hours after their deaths, five other people were killed around San Juan.
Martinez has no choice but to shrug off horrors like this. Grisly scenes are as regular as morning cafecito for Puerto Rican cops, who have the unenviable task of bringing order to San Juan’s increasingly blood-soaked streets. As murders have doubled since the late ’90s, the cops have found themselves overwhelmed by drug traffickers, marooned by an indifferent federal government, and undercut by corruption.