Puerto Rico's population is declining. Faced with a deteriorating economy, increased poverty and a swelling crime rate, many Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island for the U.S. mainland. In a four-part series, Morning Edition explores this phenomenon, and how Puerto Rico's troubles are affecting its people and other Americans in unexpected ways.
Daysi Pena was selling cosmetics and accessories at the Rio Piedras market in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when she spotted two men getting out of a car. They ran into the jewelry store across from her stall, ran out again and began firing guns.
The incident was the last straw for Pena, who had worked at the market for 12 years.
"I'm moving to the United States with my daughter," she said, referring to the mainland.
Puerto Rico's per capita murder rate is six times that of the U.S. as a whole. And with violence escalating, many residents are considering joining the thousands of others who have already fled the island for brighter and safer opportunities.
The island's police superintendent, Hector Pesquera, says tackling the crime problem has been a challenge. Before he ran the police force, which is responsible for the entire island of more than 3.5 million people, Pesquera spent years leading the FBI bureau in Miami.
The picture wasn't pretty when he returned to Puerto Rico. He came home to a fleet of police cars in despair, aging equipment and officers arrested for corruption. Drug cartels, he says, were also moving their businesses to the island from Mexico.
"Plus, unfortunately, we broke the all-time record for murders [in 2011]," he says. "We had 1,136, I believe."
It's a record that Pesquera and his team are trying to combat.
"We had 186, 187 less murders, so we're slowly making a dent," he says.
Pesquera says political muscle is needed to make the case to Washington, D.C., that solving the drug and crime problems here will help people on the mainland.
In many ways, Puerto Rico is America's third border, Pesquera says. Drugs that enter from Latin America can head right to the mainland without going through customs. According to Pesquera, 80 percent of the drugs that come through the island end up in cities and communities on the East Coast.
"Help us. Because if you help us, we're going to help the United States," he says. "Is it that hard?"
Puerto Rico's resident commissioner, or nonvoting member of Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, says the Department of Homeland Security will soon begin an intensive effort to curb drug violence. DHS would only confirm that it has expanded anti-drug operations in Puerto Rico and continues to deploy personnel there.
But police superintendent Pesquera says he's still not convinced that people on the mainland are paying enough attention to how dire the circumstances are in Puerto Rico.
"Out of sight, out of mind," he says. "I was watching the national news and they were highlighting Oakland [Calif.] and the major crime wave there — 114 murders. We blow that in a month here. You see any uproar? Nothing."
Pesquera says he knows the island will get the help it needs at some point. "It's just when," he says. "When's the breaking point?"
Beating The Culture Of Crime
In an area called Old San Juan — a touristy spot in the capital — cobblestone streets and trendy cafes paint a paradise that's described in all the tour books. But Luis Romero says there's more to the scene than visitors may notice.
"Below the obvious, incredible beauty lies a very sad situation of high crime," says Romero, who was born in the neighborhood.
Romero was pulled into the war on crime when his son was killed almost two years ago on his son's birthday. After a night of celebration, his son was on a walk with his girlfriend in a well-lit area when a 14-year-old stole his cellphone.
"He gives the iPhone, gives the money, but the guy decides to attack his girlfriend and stabs her twice. My son jumps in to defend her, and he died a hero. He got knifed three times. The kid is serving now 30 years in jail," Romero says. "My son is dead."
Romero started an anti-crime organization called Basta Ya ("that's enough" in Spanish). He says his son, who was a criminal justice student, advocated for unity and an end to the culture of crime.
Violent crime and drugs have long been issues on the island, but many Puerto Ricans say they used to feel safe as long as they weren't involved in the drug war. Now, crime feels more widespread, Romero says, affecting the poor and rich alike.
"This is no way to live, that you have to be looking to the right and looking to the left to make sure that nothing is going to happen to you," he says. "You are sitting at home and you hear the 'ratt-tatt-tatt-tatt-tatt' of the machine guns going on. Why do we have to live through that?"
Romero, who has family who have already left, says he used to have conversations with his son about whether they too should leave.
"Sometimes, as a father, I feel torn," he says. "If I had moved, he wouldn't have been killed. Maybe or maybe not."
When asked what he wants people on the U.S. mainland to know about Puerto Rico, Romero says, "Well, the people of Puerto Rico are very warm, very welcoming. You can enjoy Puerto Rico, the natural beauty, the opportunities.
"But as fellow American citizens," he says, "don't give up on us. We may need some help now, but don't give up on us."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And let's return now to our series on Puerto Rico. And yesterday, David, you left us at a market where you were talking about the poor economy in Puerto Rico and how it's driving people away.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That's right, Steve. And today we're going to get into another big reason that people are moving away, and that's the crime problem on the island. And what's interesting here, Steve, is when we were at this market talking about the economic situation, we just happened to strike a conversation with this woman.
DAYSI PENA: (Spanish spoken)
GREENE: Her name's Daysi Pena. She's a vendor who sells makeup and hair products along the street. So, she pointed to this little jewelry store right across from her stall and she described how the day before two guys jumped out of a car, ran into the store, came out and starting shooting. This was all in broad daylight. And for her, this is was really the last straw.
PENA: (Spanish spoken)
GREENE: I'm moving to the United States with my daughter, she kept telling us. She was talking about the U.S. mainland, which many people here refer to a different country. But Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, so you can move to the mainland by just getting a plane ticket. And given the scale of the crime problem now, you might see more and more people going. I mean, the crime statistics, they're terrifying. This place has a higher murder rate than any U.S. state. And the man whose job it is to tackle that is the police superintendent for the island, Hector Pesquera.
HECTOR PESQUERA: It's been quite a challenge since I got home.
GREENE: Home for Pesquera was Puerto Rico. He then spent years in Florida, among other things, leading the FBI's bureau in Miami. He returned last year to run a police force that's responsible for the entire island of more than three and a half million people. Now, to find Pesquera's office, you have to walk through a heavily secured compound that looks more like a U.S. embassy in a war zone. The police chief had his badge and pistol on his belt, and he sat in his office telling us what he found when he arrived back on the island: a fleet of police cars in disrepair, aging equipment, officers arrested for corruption and drug cartels moving their business here from Mexico.
PESQUERA: Plus, unfortunately, we broke the all-time record for murders in here.
PESQUERA: 2011, right. We had 1,136, I believe.
GREENE: Higher murder rate than Mexico, which is a pretty startling factor here.
PESQUERA: Well, it's not a record we're proud of. We're trying to tackle it. Last year, we had 186, 187 less murders. So, we're slowly making a dent.
GREENE: We've heard so much about the drug war on the Mexican border and beefing up that border; and sending money, sending resources, sending manpower. You don't hear that much about Washington trying to fight drugs coming through Puerto Rico.
PESQUERA: First of all, there's no political muscle here.
GREENE: And political muscle is needed, he said, to make the case to Washington that solving the drug and crime problems here will help people on the mainland. In many ways, Puerto Rico is America's third border. Drugs enter from Latin America and they can head straight to the mainland without ever going through customs.
PESQUERA: Eighty percent of the drugs that comes in here goes to the eastern seaboard. So, I mean, help us. So, if you help us we're going to help the United States. So, is it that hard?
GREENE: And help could be on the way. Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, says the Department of Homeland Security will soon begin an intensive effort to curb drug violence in Puerto Rico. The department would only confirm that it's expanded its anti-drug operations on the island and continues to deploy personnel. But the police chief, Pesquera, says he's not yet convinced people on the mainland are truly paying attention to how bad things are here.
PESQUERA: Out of sight, out of mind. I was watching the national news and they were highlighting Oakland and a major crime wave there - 114 murders.
GREENE: Oakland, California.
PESQUERA: Yeah, yeah. We blow that in a month here. Do you see any uproar? Nothing.
GREENE: If this continues, if we see the crime rate stay where it is, the murder rate, the economy remain in trouble, paint a picture for me of this island in five, 10, 15 years.
PESQUERA: I don't want to paint that picture. I don't want to see that happen. I know that at one point we're going to get all the help that we need. It's just when? What's the breaking point?
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
GREENE: We're outside now, in an area called Old San Juan. It's a touristy area of the capital with cobblestone streets, trendy cafes and an old Spanish fort that dates to the 16th century.
LUIS ROMERO: There's a beautiful convent. And if you look through here...
GREENE: We came here to meet a man named Luis Romero. He was showing us around on a sunny afternoon, and this was feeling like the paradise that's in all the tour books, but...
ROMERO: Below the obvious incredible beauty lies a very sad situation of high crime.
GREENE: It's a situation Romero knows too well. His day job is at a telecommunications company, but he was suddenly brought into the war on crime after a tragic night for his family. He now runs an anti-crime organization called Basta Ya, which means that's enough. The name comes from Romero's son, who was a criminal justice student. The young man used to say that the people of Puerto Rico should come together and declare that they'd had enough of this culture of crime.
ROMERO: Well, you know, he was murdered on April, 2011. Almost two years now, of the day of his birthday. We celebrated his birthday. He goes out with his girlfriend in the Condado area, you know, very well-lit area. At 10 o'clock, they decided to walk the streets. A kid - 14-year-old kid - goes out to steal his iPhone. He gives the iPhone. He gives the money. But the guy decides to attack his girlfriend and stabs her twice. My son jumps in to defend her and he died a hero. He got knifed three times. The kid is serving, now, 30 years in jail. My son is dead.
GREENE: The death of Romero's son may say something larger about crime on the island. Crime and drugs have long been problems, but people told us they used to feel safe as long as they weren't involved in the drug war. Now, crime is everywhere, affecting poor and rich alike.
ROMERO: This is no way to live, that you have to be looking to the right and looking to the left to make sure that nothing is going to happen to you. You are sitting at home and you here this rat-tat-tat-tat, all the machine guns going on. Why do we have to live through that?
GREENE: Some people have decided they don't. Romero has family who've left, and he looks back on conversations he had with his son about whether to leave.
ROMERO: Sometimes, you know, as a father, I feel torn because one of the things we were discussing was to move out of Puerto Rico. If I had moved, you know, he wouldn't have been killed - maybe or maybe not.
GREENE: I wonder what you would want to tell people listening on the mainland, who know very little about Puerto Rico.
ROMERO: Well, the people of Puerto Rico are very warm, very welcoming. You can enjoy Puerto Rico, the natural beauty, the opportunities. But as fellow American citizens, don't give up on us. We may need some help now. But don't give up on us. It's very difficult.
GREENE: That's the voice of Luis Romero. He runs an anti-crime group called Basta Ya, Spanish for that's enough. Tomorrow, we're going to hear how even in these tough times, the music and culture of Puerto Rico are still thriving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.