Puerto Rico
Crime rates* (2011)
Violent crimes
Aggravated assault78.1
Property crimes
Motor vehicle theftNot Available

*Number of reported crimes per 100,000 population.

Source: FBI - Uniform Crime Reporting - Crime in the United States 2011 (Table 5)

Crime in Puerto Rico describes acts of violent and non-violent crime that take place within the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

To combat crime, the Puerto Rican government adopted a broad anti-crime policy referred to locally as "mano dura contra el crimen" (or simply mano dura), "iron fist against crime".[1][2] In 1993, Governor Pedro Rosselló summed up government efforts by remarking, "They have asked for war, and war they shall have. Let every criminal know: Our patience has ended".[1] However, even after adopting the multiple anti-crime measures, violent crime stayed too high. In 2006, for instance, the island reported 736 murders.[3]

In the early twenty-first century police corruption facilitated drug related crimes; it resulted in the arrest of over thirty Puerto Rico law enforcement agents. It came at a time when Puerto Rico ranked sixth worldwide in murders per capita.[2] To counteract, federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), coordinated efforts with the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) and other local agencies. The increased law enforcement efforts and tactics and equipment used led to popular criticism about a fundamental militarization of the police in the island.[2][4]

Crimes by decade

Crime before the 1980s

The $10,000 Correa Cotto bounty reward in the May 3, 1952, issue of "El Imparcial"
The $10,000 Correa Cotto bounty reward in the May 3, 1952, issue of "El Imparcial"

Antonio Correa Cotto was a notorious 1950's Puerto Rican criminal. On January 25, 1950, he murdered two people in Machuelo Abajo, Ponce, Puerto Rico. After being caught, prosecuted and sentenced to prison, he managed to escape and returned to Ponce where he killed 10 more people.[5] Correa Coto was killed shortly after in a shootout with police.[5] At least one significant robbery also took place after the 1950s ended.[4]

More recently, the Government of Puerto Rico has combated the illegal drug trade and the resulting crime since the mid-1970s, with increasing law enforcement efforts over multiple decades contributing to a cycle of violence in which both demand and supply of illegal substances remain considerable.[4][6]

Though recreational drug use was uncommon in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, it markedly increased in the 1960s. By the following decade, said increase in usage, particularly among those under the age of 25, became a major concern in Puerto Rican society. Estimates found that up to seventy thousand islanders were substance abusers.[4] A number of drug cartels discovered that Puerto Rico functioned as an efficient transfer point while trafficking contraband such as cocaine to the mainland United States, and has been a magnet for organized crime for several decades.[2][4][6]

A major focus on crime and, specifically, drug-related problems arose in Puerto Rican politics out of those events. A 1975 survey found that 87% of respondents believed that violence had recently increased to a serious extent. Beside mentioning "vice", however, inflation and lack of employment attracted notice as causes of Puerto Rican crime as well.[4]

Crime in the 1980s

The existence of apparent 'no man's land' areas, in which all manner of criminal activity could take place without any sort of police control, among particularly lower-class communities caused widespread concern. The use of automatic weapons and other arms to directly fight back against law enforcement became a particular problem as well. From 1993 to 1996, the government confiscated a total of 10,017 illegal firearms during their efforts. As well, the total number of murders in Puerto Rico nearly doubled from 1987 to 1994— increasing from 509 to 995, respectively. These trends received massive interest in the island's news media.[4]

Crime in the 1990s

Pedro Rosselló's tenure as Governor of Puerto Rico involved expanding different anti-crime measures, including targeted intervention of the National Guard in certain places.[1]
Pedro Rosselló's tenure as Governor of Puerto Rico involved expanding different anti-crime measures, including targeted intervention of the National Guard in certain places.[1]

Perceptions about widespread crime triggered political turmoil and sustained pressure for the authorities to change their approaches, often involving a doubling-down of anti-drug crackdowns.[4] In the early 1990s, notably, law enforcement began specifically targeting white collar drug users. A government chief of staff remarked that the police had witnessed "housewives who go to these [drug distribution] spots with their children in the car" and vowed to send a strong message.[7]

The broad, strict approach of the island's government has been known as the "iron fist" (Spanish: mano dura contra el crimen or simply mano dura).[1][2] In 1993, Governor Pedro Rosselló summed up government efforts by remarking, "They have incited a war, and they'll get it: let criminals know that our patience is gone" (Spanish: Nos han pedido guerra y guerra tendrán. Que lo sepa el criminal: nuestra paciencia se acabó.). During the first month of that year alone, a total of 104 murders took place. Specific changes in the anti-crime efforts have included assigning police officers with more weapons and targeted intervention of the National Guard in certain places.[1]

However, Puerto Rican efforts generally proved inadequate in stopping widespread drug trafficking in the latter part of the 20th century. The government had not just expanded employment levels and general funding for jailing and policing but also undergone a kind of militarization in its organization. Specific strategies included longer sentences for criminals, increased funding for officer equipment, and the construction of new prisons. From 1992 to 1998, the island's budget for policing approximately doubled. Yet progress remained mostly elusive.[1][2][4] Public opinion viewed the island's law enforcement situation in critical terms. In 1997, a major national poll found that a 68% majority believed that crime had gotten "much worse" over the previous five years.[4]

In response to pervasive crime, local law enforcement attempted to integrate their efforts with U.S. federal agencies, especially with fighting trafficking in mind. The U.S. Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)[8] both reinforced their presence on the island during the 1990s, setting up connections that remained years later.[2][4] Nonetheless, challenges such as police corruption have frequently complicated matters as different groups attempt to work with each other. The Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD), the territory's primary law enforcement agency, has been tarnished by multiple scandals over officer misconduct up to and including outright criminal activity.[9][3][10][11]

Crime in the 2000s

One of the biggest law enforcement corruption busts in U.S. history took place in 2001 on the island. Twenty-nine police officers were caught on videotape drug trafficking thanks to an undercover operation initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Coming after authorities suspected local police of direct involvement in drug dealing, some officers even being bold enough to sell heroin from their squad cars, the bust additionally aimed to stop the illicit protection provided to certain cocaine dealers who shipped their contraband throughout the island. Known as Operation Lost Honor, a total of thirty-two individuals were arrested in the case.[3][11] Orlando Sentinel journalist Ivan Roman stated that the bust "stunned a department already reeling from a series of" previous scandals.[11]

As well, four Puerto Rican officers were arrested in 2008 by the FBI, including the director of the island's Extradition Division, for extortion as well as the distribution of both cocaine and heroin. The EFE World News Service stated in a report that the arrested "took advantage of the authority of their uniforms".[10] Between 1993 and 2000, the PRPD kicked out a full one thousand officers due to a variety of criminal charges. Between 2003 and 2007, a hundred officers had been under investigation, with seventy-five others convicted under the jurisdiction of the U.S. federal court system.[3]

Then Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo said in 2007, "We have had officers using police cars to escort drug dealers, and we have arrested officers selling weapons to undercover agents". He stressed that many officers did their best even while some had chosen to "violate their oath". The previous year, the violent death of trafficking kingpin Jose "Coquito" Lopez Rosario had spawned an investigation into the upper levels of the territory's government. The late kingpin's ties to three local senators extended to the point that one of the officials had brought him along during prison inspections.[3]

Crime in the 2010s

Officers of the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) using military-type firearms outdoors in 2010.
Officers of the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) using military-type firearms outdoors in 2010.

The massive bust on Puerto Rican soil as a result of Operation Guard Shack generated international media coverage, with publications such as the American CNN and the British Daily Telegraph reporting on it.[12][13] The culmination of a two-year FBI investigation into law enforcement corruption in the territory, the operation came to a head on October 6, 2010, with a series of pre-dawn raids. These led to over a hundred arrests, with those taken in including members of the PRPD, the Puerto Rico Corrections Department (PRCD), and even U.S. Army soldiers. The corrupt individuals had gone beyond providing security for drug traffickers to actively taking part in the deals. Officials charged a total of 133 individuals in the operation.[12][14]

The operation began at 3 a.m. as sixty-five tactical groups spread across the territory, with Hostage Rescue Teams (HRT) and Special Weapons and Tactics Teams (SWAT) making the surprise arrests. Over one thousand agents of the FBI, many of them flown into the island secretly, conducted the massive raid. The organization labeled the operation as "likely the largest police corruption case in the FBI's history."[14] "The people of Puerto Rico deserve better," stated then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.[12]

Causes of police corruption include the relatively low wages paid to regular officers. Then Police Association President Jose Rodriguez reported in 2007 that Puerto Ricans patrolling the streets made about twenty-six thousand dollars a year. Rodriguez additionally pointed out how local sergeants supervised thirty to thirty-five officers— in contrast to the average of ten in the continental U.S.[3]

Puerto Rico's murder rate dropped somewhat from the 1990s into the 2000s, yet violent crime remained significantly higher not just at a regional but also on an international scale. In the mid-2000s, the territory's troubles ranked it sixth worldwide in murders per capita.[2] In 2006, a total of 736 individuals were murdered in Puerto Rico.[3]

In terms of the 2010s, the cycle of violence between criminals and law enforcement remained a severe challenge as conditions on the island evolved.[15][16] A 2011 report by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice into the Puerto Rican police concluded that the department was "broken in a number of critical and fundamental respects". While stating that many "hard working and dedicated" officers "serve the public with distinction under often challenging conditions", the investigators declared that the violations "uncovered are pervasive and plague all levels of" the department.[9] At the conclusion of that year, Puerto Rico's experienced a spike in violent crime, with over a thousand people having been killed.[15][16]

The Puerto Rican debt crisis of the mid-2010s has challenged the territory's civil society and resulted in hundreds of thousands of residents becoming unemployed. A subsequent wave of migration to the mainland from the island took place as well. A U.S. federal oversight board agreed to supervise the local government's financial administration in 2016, with some $74 billion of debt on the line. A Miami Herald article from 2017 stated that the crisis has left Puerto Rican "institutions in shambles".[16]

During a weekend in December 2018, there were seven killings.[17] The extent to which such violence will cycle as the rebuilding takes place remains uncertain.[15] Police Superintendent Hector Pesquera remarked in 2017 that Puerto Rico's crime problem had been mostly "out of sight, out of mind" to mainland Americans before the hurricane and no longer was.[16]

Nonetheless, individuals such as former Police Superintendent Miguel Pereira have observed that the large profit margins associated with illegal drugs in Puerto Rico, the high demand being driven by multiple social problems, will foster criminal acts no matter what law enforcement tries to do. Pereira provided a specific example in 2013 with how cocaine sold for about $15,000 a kilo on Puerto Rican streets while wholesale producer in areas of Colombia produced the substance for only $400 per kilo or so. Thus, Pereira publicly lamented, criminals could even lose a full 90% of their supply through anti-drug efforts and still receive significant returns; for instance, a mobster cleaned out of all but 100 of his initial 1,000 kilos could still manage to become a millionaire from those leftovers alone.[1]

Crime in the 2020s

There were 529 homicides in 2020 and 614 in 2019.[18][19]

Illegal drugs are routed from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, continue through Puerto Rico and on to Newark, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Orlando, Florida.[20] Multiple law enforcement agencies have worked to arrest members of drug gangs.[21] La Lorenzana is a violent gang that operates in Aguas Buenas, Cidra, Juncos, Cayey, San Lorenzo and other municipalities. That gang's members kill and dismember victims after assassination and are led by Nelson Torres Delgado, (aka: El Burro), who was arrested in 2019,[22] but remains a fugitive as of June 2022.[23][24][25]

Debates and discussions

Commentators that have questioned the effectiveness of government anti-crime policy altogether include Gary Gutierrez, a criminal justice professor at the University of Turabo,[15] and Jorge Rodriguez Beruff,[2] an academic and historian associated with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).

In 2013, the former secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Zoé Laboy remarked publicly that "in general terms we have failed" (Spanish: en términos generales hemos fracasado) while arguing that some initiatives had resulted in good outcomes.[1]

In the aftermath of 2017's Hurricane Maria, Miami Herald journalist David Ovalle wrote,

[T]he future for law enforcement on the island is bleak. The department has lost about 4,000 officers in the past five years and, because of the island's economic crisis, cannot count on fresh recruits anytime soon. Hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers, outside law-enforcement officers and private security guards are helping— temporarily— but robberies, murders and drug dealing have resumed at levels that would seem outrageous in mainland states but are tragically normal here.[16]

Crime against women

Domestic violence was criminalized in Puerto Rico under Law 54 of 1989.[26] The law includes a rehabilitation program as an alternative to prison for convicted offenders but according to the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center of Investigative Reporting) this program lacks supervision, which undermines its credibility.[27]

From 2009 to 2021 at least 196 women on the island were killed in acts of gender-based violence according to the Oficina de la Procuradora de la Mujer (Office of the Woman's Rights Advocate) of the government of Puerto Rico.[28] On January 26, 2021, governor Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency after several women were murdered. The epidemic of violence against women in Puerto Rico reached a high when in two unrelated cases women were murdered at the end of April, 2021. According to the FBI[29] Félix Verdejo murdered his pregnant lover on April 30, 2021. The 27-year-old was punched, injected with drugs, tied to heavy stones, thrown over a bridge into a river and then shot at.[30] The other murder victim, Andrea C. Ruiz Costas, had requested a restraining order against her violent partner but had been denied.[31][32] These murders attracted large media and public attention which increased demands from women seeking assistance in cases of gender based violence.[33] On May 5 the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico which is managing Puerto Rico's debt crisis approved $7 million in funding after initially rejecting this amount.[34] The money was approved so that the Puerto Rico police can address the epidemic of gender violence.[35] On August 27, 2021, governor Pedro Pierluisi signed into law a measure that turned feminicides and transfeminicides into separate categories of crimes.[36][37] The new law designated these crimes as first degree murders and as a result raised the punishment for committing them to a maximum of 99 years.[38]

In popular culture

Crime in Puerto Rico is featured in a film and accompanying soundtrack by Daddy Yankee called Talento de Barrio.[39]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Evidente el fracaso de la "Mano Dura" contra el crimen" (in Spanish). El Nuevo Dia. March 14, 2013. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Eileen, Rosin; Youngers, Coletta, eds. (2005). Drugs and democracy in Latin America: The impact of U.S. policy. Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 324–328. ISBN 9781588262547.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Robles, Frances (July 18, 2007). "Police corruption undermines Puerto Rican drug war". McClatchyDC. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Griffith, Ivelaw L., ed. (2000). The political economy of drugs in the Caribbean. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 162–179. ISBN 9780230288966.
  5. ^ a b Personajes Notorios: Correa Coto. LinktoPR.com (Hatillo, Puerto Rico.) 26 May 2006. Archived May 26, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ a b Rosenthal, M. (March 26, 1996). "On My Mind; Dispatch From the Drug War". The New York Times. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  7. ^ "Puerto Rico Enlists Mail Carriers in Drug War". The Beaver County Times. June 23, 1993. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  8. ^ "DEA CARIBBEAN REGION". dea.gov. DEA.
  9. ^ a b "Investigation of the Puerto Rico Police Department" (PDF). Justice.gov. September 5, 2011. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  10. ^ a b "FBI arrests 4 Puerto Rican police for corruption". EFE World News Service. December 19, 2008. Archived from the original on January 13, 2018. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  11. ^ a b c Roman, Ivan (August 30, 2001). "Cops Sold Heroin From Squad Cars, Agents Say". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  12. ^ a b c "FBI: Puerto Rico cops protected cocaine dealers". CNN.com. October 7, 2010. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  13. ^ "FBI in 'unprecedented' raid on Puerto Rico". The Daily Telegraph. October 7, 2010. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  14. ^ a b "FBI - San Juan (Press Room)". FBI.gov. October 6, 2010. Archived from the original on October 7, 2010. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  15. ^ a b c d Cerullo, Megan (January 11, 2018). "Puerto Rico faces a surge in murders after Hurricane Maria". New York Daily News. Retrieved January 17, 2018.
  16. ^ a b c d e Ovalle, David (October 20, 2017). "On the streets of San Juan, police struggle to rein in crime after Hurricane Maria". Miami Herald. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  17. ^ Puig, Miguel Rivera. "Siete asesinatos durante el fin de semana" [Seven murder during the weekend]. El Vocero (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2018-12-17. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  18. ^ "Puerto Rico despide 2020 sin asesinatos y balas perdidas en celebraciones" [Puerto Rico ends 2020 without murders nor celebratory gunfire in celebrations]. La Perla del Sur (in Spanish). 2021-01-01. Archived from the original on 2021-01-01. Retrieved 2021-04-02.
  19. ^ "Puerto Rico cierra el 2020 con la cantidad más baja de asesinatos en 31 años" [Puerto Rico closes 2020 with the lowest amount of homicides in 31 years]. El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). 2021-01-01. Archived from the original on 2021-01-01. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  20. ^ "Autoridades federales y estatales aseguran haber desmantelado la poderosa ganga de narcotráfico que dirigió "Wasa"". El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). May 25, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  21. ^ "Un menor entre los muertos durante operativo policiaco en Toa Baja". WAPA.tv (in Spanish). November 22, 2013. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  22. ^ "Golpe federal a ganga dedicada a "crímenes violentos"". Primera Hora (in Spanish). May 22, 2019. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  23. ^ Puig, Miguel Rivera (December 13, 2021). "Vinculan a "El Burro" con la masacre de Cidra y lo señalan como el "autor intelectual"". El Vocero de Puerto Rico (in Spanish). Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  24. ^ "FBI lo busca: la historia que no sabías de "El Burro"". Primera Hora (in Spanish). December 14, 2021. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  25. ^ "Investigan si un hombre arrestado en Juncos está vinculado a la organización criminal liderada por "El Burro"". El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). May 21, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  26. ^ "ayudalegalpr.org". ayudalegalpr.org (in Spanish). Retrieved 2021-09-25.
  27. ^ Quiles, Cristina del Mar (2021-07-15). "Sin fiscalización los programas de desvío para agresores por Ley 54". Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (in European Spanish). Retrieved 2021-09-24.
  28. ^ "Piden cuidado en la cobertura de violencia de género" [Call for caution when covering gender based violence]. El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). 2021-09-19. Archived from the original on 2021-09-20. Retrieved 2021-09-19.
  29. ^ "Puerto Rico's Governor Declares State Of Emergency Over Gender Violence". NPR. 2021-01-26. Archived from the original on 2021-01-26. Retrieved 2021-05-06.
  30. ^ "Puerto Rico mourns Keishla Rodriguez's death as boxer Félix Verdejo is indicted in her killing". Yahoo. 2021-05-07. Archived from the original on 2021-05-08. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  31. ^ "Puerto Rican Boxer Félix Verdejo Charged With Killing Pregnant Woman". NPR. 2021-05-03. Archived from the original on 2021-05-18. Retrieved 2021-05-06.
  32. ^ González-Ramírez, Andrea (2021-05-05). "No End in Sight for Puerto Rico's Gender Violence Epidemic". The Cut. Retrieved 2021-05-06.
  33. ^ "Ciencias Forenses no ha analizado sobre 2,200 "rape kits"" [Forensic Sciences has not analyzed over 2,200 rape kits]. El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). 2018-09-26. Archived from the original on 2020-10-09. Retrieved 2021-05-28.
  34. ^ "Junta aprueba los $7 millones para atender la violencia de género" [Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico approves the $7 million for attending gender violence]. www.noticel.com (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2021-05-05. Retrieved 2021-05-28.
  35. ^ Kuilan, Gloria Ruiz (2021-05-05). "Junta de Supervisión Fiscal aprueba los $7 millones para fondo de emergencia contra la violencia de género" [Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico approves 7 million for emergency funds against gender violence]. El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2021-05-17. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  36. ^ "El Departamento de Justicia presenta objeciones contra el proyecto legislativo que tipifica el feminicidio y el transfeminicidio" [The Department of Justice present objections against the legislative project that typifies feminicide and transfeminicide.]. El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). 2021-02-03. Archived from the original on 2021-02-03. Retrieved 2021-05-28.
  37. ^ "Pierluisi convierte en ley medida que define los feminicidios y transfeminicidios como delitos de asesinato en primer grado" [Pierluisi converts into law measure that defines feminicdes and transfeminicides as crimes of first degree murder]. El Nuevo Día (in Spanish). 2021-08-27. Archived from the original on 2021-08-27. Retrieved 2021-09-03.
  38. ^ Tolentino Rosario, Carlos (2021-09-01). "El asesinato de Damaris Ortiz será el primer caso a radicarse por el delito de feminicidio" [The murder of Damaris Ortiz will be the first case for the crime or feminicide]. El Nuevo Día. Archived from the original on 2021-09-02. Retrieved 2021-09-03.
  39. ^ Scherstuhl, Alan (October 8, 2008). "A Shallow Look at Ghetto Clichés in Talento de Barrio". The Village Voice. Retrieved June 14, 2022.