Puerto Rico: Police Struggle to Keep Crime Down in Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria ripped apart daily life in Puerto Rico but it hasn’t brought a halt to the crime that has long plagued the poverty-stricken island.

In the hard-scrabble neighborhood of Rio Piedras, Jessica Rojas was at work this week making sandwiches at a Subway restaurant — a cash-only operation because of the limited power supply — when two young gunmen dressed in black burst through the door demanding money.

Esto es un asalto,” one yelled. “This is a robbery!”

Rojas alerted an off-duty cop working security in a back room. A gunfight erupted. Rojas cowered on the ground as one gunman was gravely wounded and the other escaped. Also wounded in the crossfire: a local prosecutor and his wife who happened to be dining inside.

“Things here are hot,” said Rojas, 42, a former Hollywood resident. “It’s not easy living without water and electricity, and it’s giving a lot of people [opportunity] to rob us. It’s getting worse. We need more police.”

More than a month after Hurricane Maria wrecked the island, Puerto Rico’s overwhelmed police force of 13,000 officers is struggling to contain crime, just as before — but now with longer shifts, against emboldened criminals and on streets cloaked in darkness.

“It’s easier to burglarize — there’s no alarms, no phone systems. It’s dark. The delinquents are taking advantage of the crisis that Puerto Rico is in,” said Puerto Rico Police Officer Heriberto Soto, during a night patrol Tuesday that included calls for a robbery shooting, homeless men torching the outsides of stolen cables to steal the copper inside and and a high-speed car chase of suspected gunmen.

And the future for law enforcement on the island is bleak. The department has lost about 4,000 officers in the past five years and, because of the island’s economic crisis, cannot count on fresh recruits anytime soon. Hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers, outside law-enforcement officers and private security guards are helping — temporarily — but robberies, murders and drug dealing have resumed at levels that would seem outrageous in mainland states but are tragically normal here.

In the month since Maria ravaged the island, there have been no fewer than 34 murders. Crime has largely returned to pre-storm levels, said Puerto Rico police superintendent Héctor Pesquera. Puerto Rico’s crime rate has been largely “out of sight, out of mind” for years in the eyes of mainland authorities, he added, who have given the island’s law-enforcement community precious few resources.

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Miami Herald