Elyssa Pachico asks the question,
Is Puerto Rico Becoming a Narco-State?
With over 1,000 murders in Puerto Rico this year, some commentators have warned that the US territory is on the verge of becoming a “narco-state” that has been infiltrated by the drug trade.
there is little evidence that 2011’s record wave of violence is because more drugs are passing through Puerto Rico northwards. Even the US Justice Department says that the “overall drug threat” to the island has “remained relatively consistent” in recent years.
The big change has to do with the island’s domestic drug trade. Since two of Puerto Rico’s most powerful drug traffickers, Angel Ayala Vasquez and Jose Figueroa Agosoto, were arrested in 2009 and 2010 respectively, their organizations have splintered. The instability means that it has become more important to control domestic distribution spots. As most of those places, known as “puntos,” are based in the country’s 332 public housing projects, this means the local gangs dedicated to protecting their punto have more incentive to respond aggressively to threats.
According to one Justice Department report, not only does this mean more retail-level drug dealers are fighting to regain control of more puntos, but they are more willing to use indiscriminate violence to do so. Instead of picking their targets carefully, gang members are more willing to enter with guns blazing. Massacres which kill innocent bystanders, frequently children, have become more deadly. Police have also said it is more common for distributors to pay their employees with weapons instead of cash.
One of the most intense gang wars involves fugitive gang leader Jaime Davila Reyes, alias “Peluche,” and his rival Carlos Morales Davila, alias “Cano Navarro,” who was trumpeted as Puerto Rico’s “most dangerous drug trafficker” when security forces arrested him in November. The feud allegedly started when Davila stole several of Morales’ distribution points in the eastern municipality of Humacao. Morales responded by moving in on Davila’s territory in Caguas, 20 miles south of the capital, where one of the nation’s largest housing projects is located. The wave of homicides unleashed by this move is partly responsible for the spike of murders in 2011.
But a plague of turf wars over other, smaller housing projects also caused the body count to rise. In Manati municipality, the gang leaders responsible for overseeing three puntos have decided to join together and fight a rival group, based in the Campo Alegre housing project. In Bayamon municipality, the former stronghold of drug trafficker Angel Ayala Vasquez, alias “Angelo Millones,” another fight has broken out over control of the 22 housing projects found here. These kinds of highly localized conflicts, complete with their own intricate histories of shifting alliances and betrayals, are found all over Puerto Rico.
Often, those who control Puerto Rico’s puntos do much more than oversee retail drug distribution. They control the sale of contraband goods or stolen car parts. They host concerts and back nightclubs. In some projects, gang leaders even decide who is allowed to sell pirated DVDs and CDs in the neighborhood. Those who go against the local gang may find themselves targeted in a retribution killing.
Puerto Rico’s geographic importance as a transhipment point between the Caribbean and the US is not going to change. And judging from the patterns of violence on the island in the past 20 years, with most of the killings caused by drug trafficking turf wars, the fundamental cause of these homicide outbreaks hasn’t changed much either. As the US Justice Department pointed out this year, Puerto Rico’s police force have a long way to go before they are capable of meeting these challenges. Until there are sweeping changes in the island’s security policy, the murder rate in the projects may keep on climbing.
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