New York Feels the Blowback as Puerto Rico is Battered by Drugs and Brazen Murders


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.

At the head of that effort is Pesquera, a 66-year-old with a white beard, glasses, and a sailor’s mouth. “Every morning, I look at the stats and ask myself, ‘What could we have done to prevent this?’” he says from his corner office. In these particular cases, not much, he concludes. “But guess who is blamed?”

Before Pesquera can save the island from chaos, he first must first fix an antiquated police department infamous for graft and brutality.

“There have been scandals about police corruption and cops killing civilians in the streets for years in Puerto Rico,” says Bruce Bagley, an expert on organized crime in Latin America and professor at the University of Miami.

This isn’t the first time waves of violence have broken over Puerto Rico. Perched at the strategic entrance to the Caribbean, the Connecticut-sized island has a long and bloody history. Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Léon slaughtered Taíno natives beginning in 1508. Over the centuries, slave uprisings and independence movements were put down with deadly force. By 1898, the colony had won a degree of autonomy, only for the Spanish-American War to transfer control to the United States.

When Puerto Rican politicians voted for independence in 1914, the U.S. responded by granting boricuas U.S. citizenship—just in time to be drafted for World War I. It was another 30 years before Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own governor.

Under U.S. rule, the island became a popular vacation spot. But by the 1980s, with Colombian cocaine flowing through Puerto Rico to South Florida, violence grew endemic. Murders fell in the 1990s as drug routes shifted to Central America and Mexico, but in 2006, newly elected Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared an assault on cartels. Two years later, the U.S. launched its own $1.6 billion Merida Initiative to combat gangs.

“That is why in the past three years Puerto Rico has become increasingly visible in regard to drug scandals,” Bagley says. “This is an unintended consequence of the pressure being brought in Mexico and Central America.”

Today, drugs from Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic stream in on jet skis and cigarette boats. “Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, illegal contraband that makes it to the island is unlikely to be subjected to further U.S. Customs inspections,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), head of the Homeland Security committee, during a hearing last year.

McCaul isn’t the only official worried about the trend. Drugs arrive via “internal conspiracies entrenched in [San Juan’s] Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport” as well as ports and airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Jacksonville, and New York City, a source at the Drug Enforcement Agency tells the Miami New Times. With more than 2 million Puerto Ricans in Florida and New York alone, there’s perfect cover for smugglers. Weapons, meanwhile, move in the other direction, often on cruise ships, according to the DEA official.

“Right now, somewhere on the streets of New York, Miami, or maybe a few blocks away from where we sit in Washington, drug dealers are selling cocaine, heroin, or marijuana. These drugs entered the United States through the wide open back door,” McCaul said at the June 21 hearing.

Pesquera, who’d been appointed chief a few months before the hearing, listened quietly in the audience as then-Gov. Luis Fortuño accused the feds of having “no strategy.” Puerto Rican by birth, Pesquera spent 27 years working for the FBI, during which he ran the agency’s Miami office from 1998 until his retirement in 2003, and oversaw infamous cases including the “Cuban Five” spy ring, Irish Republican Army gun-runners, and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Last March, at Fortuño’s request, he took leave from his job as head of security at the Port of Miami to try and save his homeland.

Today he looks exhausted. Pesquera lives close to his office but is—by law—watched over night and day by heavily armed guards. (“I do go out sometimes without them knowing,” he says with a smirk.) He is ferried to work in a brand-new, gleaming black SUV with lead in the doors. Even the windows in his corner office are bulletproof.

Amid the violence and paranoia, Pesquera has instituted practical reforms: updating aging equipment, improving training, and winning public support by sacking bad cops. And there have been small improvements. In 2012, murders fell to just under 1,000 from their peak the year before, thanks to an odd arrangement with federal prosecutors. (The first two months of 2013 saw 148 new corpses on the island—a shocking total but slightly below the same period last year.)

Unlike anywhere else in America, Puerto Rican law allows anyone—even accused murderers—to bond out of jail. Drug dealers often spring out, only to skip court, disappear, and keep on killing. “We’ve had guys wearing [electronic] ankle bracelets murdering people,” Pesquera says. In the past year, however, the DOJ has increasingly used federal gun charges, which prohibit bond, to keep criminals off the street. “We’re sending two flights a week to the U.S. because we can’t hold them all,” the police chief says.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Like the island nation, the families touched by its dizzying array of violence face an uncertain future in which justice is by no means guaranteed. “Death, jail, drugs, killings. That’s what the streets are now,” said Hector Camacho Jr. after his father’s fatal shooting.

Figueroa recently received two years’ probation as punishment for watching a cop kill her son. Her other son, Adrian—who still has a bullet buried in his collarbone—accepted a deal of three years in prison in order to avoid a life behind bars.

On Feb. 27, David Bonilla Fernández strolled into San Juan’s central courthouse in a white polo, spiky hair, and a face free of emotion. Cops were waiting for him. Five days earlier, they had distributed photos of Bonilla and three others surrounding Ramos moments before his murder at the SanSe Festival. Prosecutors had charged Bonilla in absentia, and the scrawny 24-year-old had arrived to turn himself in.

Bonilla hasn’t confessed and the video evidence against him is thin. Unless terrified witnesses can be convinced to testify, a jury will likely let him off. In fact, Bonilla could be strolling around free even earlier. On Nov. 4, Puerto Rican voters rejected an amendment that would have revoked the automatic right of accused criminals to bond out. So if Bonilla can come up with $120,000, he will walk.

Even that limited amount of justice eludes the family of Hector Camacho. Police called two men in for questioning in December, but have not made any arrests. The murder of Puerto Rico’s greatest boxer has yet to be solved. Instead, it’s now the entire island of Puerto Rico that is locked in the fight of its life.

“Death, jail, drugs, killings,” said Hector Camacho Jr., before his father’s funeral. “That’s what the streets are now.”

“In reality, all of San Juan is hot,” confesses Angel Martinez as he cruises away from the funeral home shooting toward the next bloody crime scene.

“If you’re a criminal you’ll do anything because you know you’ll never be caught,” says Sujeylee Ramos.

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.

“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.”

“Death, jail, drugs, killings,” said Hector Camacho Jr., before his father’s funeral. “That’s what the streets are now.”