Editorial Board

Puerto Rico’s Drug Problem Needs Federal Attention: View

Puerto Rico has 3.7 million residents, a storied capital, more than 300 miles of stunning coastline, an average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit -- and, in 2011, a homicide rate more than five times that of the mainland U.S. and higher than that of Mexico.

It badly needs federal help to curb this drug-fueled violence. But so far, the U.S. government is treating Puerto Ricans as if they were second-class citizens.

Geography is partly to blame for Puerto Rico’s plight. If Mexico had the misfortune to be, in the late Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz’s words, “so far from God, so close to the United States,” Puerto Rico’s bad luck is to be so close to South America and to the southern U.S. It is an ideal transshipment point for illegal narcotics in the Americas. And with open ocean between it and Africa and Europe, it’s a good point of departure for illicit shipments to those two continents.

As the U.S. and Mexico have cracked down on the drug trade, traffic has shifted to the Caribbean. The National Drug Intelligence Center reports that cocaine seizures along sea routes between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands more than tripled between 2009 and 2010. Plenty of the stuff is still getting through: The price of cocaine in the area dropped by roughly one-third between 2008 and 2010, suggesting there is no lack of supply. Upward of 80 percent of what arrives by plane or boat goes on to the eastern United States. From 2010 to 2011, seizures of illegal cash by customs agents rose by 68 percent; seizures of such money by the Drug Enforcement Agency more than doubled.

Other factors have helped to fuel the trade. Puerto Rico’s economy has done since even before the recession, making the gains of the drug trade, and the solace that its products offer, even more attractive. The island’s unemployment rate of 14.7 percent and poverty rate of 45 percent are higher than those of any U.S. state. Moreover, Puerto Rico’s 17,000-member police force, the second largest in the U.S. after that of New York City, has been roiled by charges of civil rights violations and corruption. In October 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 61 officers after the largest police corruption investigation in the agency’s history.

Ironically, the spike in violence was triggered by the arrests in 2009 and 2010 of two of the island’s leading drug lords -- arrests that set off a bloody turf war. More than half of the 1,117 homicides in 2011 -- that’s about one person killed every eight hours or so -- are believed to have been drug-related. “If we were talking about Jacksonville,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at a hearing in December, “people would be screaming.”

Many Puerto Ricans have been screaming. Washington needs to listen and respond. Currently, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands together receive less than $100 million a year in direct federal funding for anti-drug efforts.

That’s a small fraction of the $2 billion-plus that the U.S. government has dedicated to fighting drug trafficking on the U.S. border with Mexico. Right now, for example, the Coast Guard has no fixed-wing surveillance aircraft stationed in Puerto Rico, nor does it have the ability to simultaneously patrol Puerto Rico’s east and west coasts. Although the DEA and Customs and Border Protection have increased their staffing, they are not yet equipped to tackle challenges like significantly expanding inspections of container traffic to and from San Juan, the fifth busiest port on the U.S. eastern seaboard.

The Caribbean Border Initiative proposed by Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative to Congress, seeks to replicate the Southwest Border Initiative that the Obama administration introduced in 2009, increasing resources for multiple agencies and promoting a more integrated approach. We hope that the Office of National Drug Control Policy will support it, not least for the positive signal that it will send to Puerto Rico’s residents.

Public confidence would also benefit if the federal government, through a consent decree and a court-appointed monitor, took a strong role in the reform of Puerto Rico’s police department.

Finally, to fight money laundering and promote development, the island’s government should do more to encourage its residents to use banks. Despite efforts to get people to use direct deposit for paychecks and create individual development accounts that match savers’ deposits, a third or more of Puerto Rico’s population is “unbanked,” versus 7.7 percent in the rest of the U.S. Their cash-only transactions help to enable the island’s burgeoning black economy.

On the margins of the margins, the poorest Puerto Ricans are the ones who bear the brunt of drug violence. They deserve the fullest protections the U.S. can provide.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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