Puerto Rico governor presses for bigger federal presence in Caribbean

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Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño decried during a June 21 House hearing what he said is a "clear mismatch" between the new intensity of drug-related violence and trafficking in U.S. Caribbean territories and federal response.

Nearly 30 percent of the illegal drugs coming into the continental U.S. come through the Caribbean, Fortuño (R) said, noting that homicides in the island commonwealth are bucking the national trend by increasing. Close to 80 percent of murders there are related to the illegal drug trade, he said, driving the island murder rate to six times the national average. Counter-narcotic efforts along the Mexican and Canadian border are driving smugglers to revive the Caribbean as a shipping route, he added.

"We don't feel that Washington has understood how serious the situation is," Fortuño told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight, investigations, and management.

"At the end of the day, there's nothing coming back other than, you know, planning the next meeting," he added.

Fortuño testified amid growing concern that the Puerto Rican police force--the second-largest in the United States--is itself a source of island instability. The American Civil Liberties Union published a June 19 report (.pdf) charging that departmental "use of excessive or lethal force is routine, and civil and human rights violations are rampant." Earlier, in September, the Justice Department released a report (.pdf) likewise concluding that the police use excessive force, adding that the Puerto Rican police officers engage in a pattern and practice of violating the Fourth Amendment.

During the hearing, Fortuño said the commonwealth police are undergoing a "full-fledged reform effort" that includes new training on use of force, more strict supervision and establishment of an independent monitor.

Puerto Rico, Fortuño said, acts as a last line of defense against drug trafficking but federal law enforcement agencies are "under-staffed and under-funded compared to their stateside counterparts."

As evidence, he cited a vacancy rate of 15 percent in Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Puerto Rico and a 39 percent vacancy rate in Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms personnel, as well as lack of a Coast Guard vessel permanently operating on the eastern side of the island.

Some representatives at the hearing also noted that the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine closed its San Juan office, one of four located on Puerto Rico.

"This lack of sufficient attention is most blatantly evidenced by the absence of any kind of comprehensive interagency strategy," Fortuño said.

Federal officials present at the hearing said they allocate resources based on funding and according to multiple priorities. When pressed on why the Coast Guard has a stronger presence in Miami and Key West than Puerto Rico by Del. Pedro Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico), service Adm. William Lee, deputy for operations, policy, and capabilities responded that "there's more than just a drug threat in the Straits of Florida."

The Coast Guard also prefers to intercept cocaine shipments destined for Hispaniola, Lee said, "where we can get it in bulk"  before it's parceled up into smaller packages.

Michael Kostelnik, CBP assistant commissioner for air and marine, said the agency closed the San Juan office after a shortfall in funding from the Puerto Rican trust fund and lack of appropriated funds to sustain the office.

Nonetheless, said Pierluisi, "we are facing a crisis. So we are asking for particular attention until we get back to normal levels."

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimonies and webcast available)

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