Puerto Rico — Good News and bad…

I just returned from a family vacation in Puerto Rico.  It was my first trip to the island.  First, the good news — It is absolutely beautiful.  The beaches and countryside are gorgeous.    The history on the island is fascinating and the El Morro Fort is a must see.  Old San Juan is a shopping mecca and the old buildings make it feel as though you’ve traveled back in time.

The bad news is that the island is facing some serious problems, not the least of which is a drug-fueled crime wave that has given rise to a fortress mentality in much of the country and has skewed resources away from other pressing needs.  The island’s top police official, Mr.  Hector Pesquera, a retired  agent who ran the Miami FBI Office, said struggles with drug traffickers and an escalating murder rate are his biggest challenges. (See NPR story) Pesquera notes that Mexican Cartels have moved some of their operations to the island and that 80% of the drugs destined for U.S. cities on the east coast now flow through Puerto Rico.

Fear of crime on the island is reflected in an heavy police presence, with officers on routine patrol wearing the type of tactical vests usually associated with SWAT Teams on the mainland.  All the officers I spoke to and observed maintained a friendly and professional demeanor despite long-sleeve black uniforms  covered by the black tactical vests which must have been very uncomfortable in the 90 degree heat. Island homes are surrounded by wrought iron fences, behind walls topped with glass, razor-sharp metal pieces and barbed wire to discourage intruders.  In the homes where we stayed, outside iron gates were locked as well as two separately-keyed locks on each door.  At a convenience store where I went to buy a soft drink, store employees must buzz you in through a locked door and then buzz you out as well.

It is a good example of how fear of crime steals resources from other areas.  Homes with multiple locks and fences were not equipped with smoke detectors. Police patrol beaches that do not have lifeguards.  The heavy police presences represents a substantial government expense stealing from limited funds that could be used for education and economic development. Until citizens feel secure in their communities, they will continue to demand police and safety services, often to the exclusion of other pressing priorities.

This is a situation not unique to Puerto Rico.  Governments at all levels in the U.S. pay for heavy policing, court related expenses and prison costs to maintain a war on drugs that can only be described as a colossal failure.  It is also notable that it is drug consumption in the U.S. that fuels much of the crime rate that afflicts Puerto Rico.  U.S. drug money buys the guns and supports the gang violence that leads citizens everywhere to hide themselves behind walls, fences, alarm systems and multiple locks.  The irony is that in pursuit of safety we make ourselves prisoners in our own homes.

Ending the War on Drugs would not be the end of crime.  But it would have a substantial impact and the resources currently wasted in drug war futility could be directed to more productive areas.