Puerto Rico Violence Calls Into Question America's War on Drugs

Keep New Times Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Miami and help keep the future of New Times free.

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.

See also:
- Puerto Rico's Wave of Drugs and Brazen Murders Reverberates to Miami

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.

See also:
- Puerto Rico's Wave of Drugs and Brazen Murders Reverberates to Miami

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.

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.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes. Follow this journalist on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Miami.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Miami.