Saturday, December 3, 2011

Drug violence at America’s other southern border

By Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, 
Published: November 24

Last Friday night, a married couple entering their home in the town of Hatillo, Puerto Rico, was startled by two armed burglars. The husband was fatally shot, becoming the 1,000th murder victim of 2011. This was Puerto Rico’s highest annual homicide toll — until the record was surpassed the next day.

On average, someone is murdered every 7 1 / 2 hours in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory populated by 3.7 million American citizens. At least half of these murders involve drug trafficking organizations, whose growing presence has bred a culture of violence that emboldens criminals and threatens the lives of innocent people. The homicide and unemployment rates in Puerto Rico are higher than those of any U.S. state.

Much has been said about the Mexican drug wars that have left 40,000 dead since 2006. Yet proportionally, the level of violence in Puerto Rico is higher than in Mexico. Last year there were 26 homicides for every 100,000 Puerto Ricans vs. 18 for every 100,000 Mexicans, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Puerto Rican police are clearly overwhelmed. One would think the federal government would see its obligation to intervene. Controlling the flow of drugs, dirty money and illegal weapons is a national priority. Yet Washington has been slow to react.

The writer is project director for media diversity initiatives at the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.