For this week's cover story on the soaring murder rate in Puerto Rico, I spent five days on the island. I visited crime scenes still wet with blood, picked up AK-47 shells sprayed around neighborhoods like confetti, and interviewed terrified locals.
But at the heart of the Caribbean commonwealth's killings is the issue of drugs. I spoke to people on all sides of the debate -- from drug cops to drug dealers -- and almost everyone agreed that America's War on Drugs ain't working.
Eighty percent of the narcotics passing through Puerto Rico end up in Miami, New York, or elsewhere on the East Coast. The Caribbean island is central to the drug trade because, as a U.S. commonwealth, it's extremely easy to ship drugs from the island to the mainland in suitcases and shipping containers or even on cruise ships.
But Puerto Rico's crucial role in drug trafficking is a curse. As local gangs and international smuggling organizations fight among themselves for control of the island, innocent bystanders are increasingly getting hurt.
Behind the individual horror stories is a broader trend, however. Murders in Puerto Rico have soared since the United States launched a $1.6 billion crackdown on Mexican cartels. Bruce Bagley, an organized-crime expert at the University of Miami, says the War on Drugs is like a giant game of whack-a-mole that is pushing violence into different regions instead of eliminating it.
"What we are seeing in Puerto Rico... is an unintended consequence of the pressure being brought in Mexico and Central America," he says. While Puerto Rican police are demanding better equipment, Bagley says the island would be better off combating social ills like its 14.6 percent unemployment or 56 percent child poverty rate.
Those problems were apparent during a ride-along I took with Puerto Rican police. For hours, we cruised from one residencial, or public housing project, to another.
Drugs were everywhere. In one pitch-black field, our headlights lit up a ghostly scene of 20 crackheads passing around a few precious pipes. Nearby, two people sat on a stoop, openly heating up heroin in a spoon as cops rolled by.
The residenciales themselves were pocked with bullet holes from drug disputes. Lookouts shouted "agua" or "perro" when they spotted our unmarked cruiser.
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These same cops admitted to me that they are overmatched by better-armed drug gangs. Meanwhile, a drug dealer I spoke with brushed off my questions by pointing to police corruption, which is rampant on the island.
Legalizing drugs wouldn't fix all of Puerto Rico's problems, but it might help in the long run. Criminalization simply empowers cartels, and occasional crackdowns on certain routes just pushes drugs and violence to new locales, like Puerto Rico.
Until the States and regional leaders figure out a more comprehensive approach, I'm afraid Puerto Rico will keep bleeding.