Thirty-two people have been slain in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico in the first 11 days of the new year — nearly double the number killed during the same period a year ago.
Experts say that the uptick in murders is an aftereffect of Hurricane Maria, which overwhelmed an already bankrupt Puerto Rico and fueled criminal activity.
Lawlessness reigns as police, who complain that they are owed back pay for overtime, have staged a sickout that’s taken roughly 2,000 officers off the street each day, according to the Associated Press.
Resources are scarce, and commodities including diesel generators have been stolen as tension mounts among families in towns that are still without electricity.
“You can’t deny the amount of tension you feel when you go there,” said Monica Caudillo, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.
“People are upset and if they have any sort of weapon at hand, it’s not hard to see how conflicts can get out of hand when all those factors converge,” she told the Daily News.
Police have pulled back and families living in towns that are still in the dark are governed by fear, according to Caudillo, who recently returned from Puerto Rico, where her husband’s family lives.
“The police and people in government are focused right now on solving immediate needs that emerged with the hurricane so they are not as focused on watching crime rates or fulfilling typical duties, like public security, as they would under normal circumstances.”
Criminals are encouraged by a sense of impunity, criminologists say.
“They know they won’t be prosecuted because authorities are too busy,” Caudillo said.
Edgardo Hernandez Velez, executive director of a police advocacy group, said the number of killings so far this year is striking.
“The numbers are up compared to last year because there are not enough people to be on the lookout and see what’s going on,” he said.
“Police have been working many hours and are not being paid, so there’s a lack of policemen out there that has contributed to the increase in criminality,” he continued.
He said that 32 killings were “a lot” for just 11 days.
Yet others dispute the presumed link between the killings and Hurricane Maria. Gary Gutierrez, a professor who teaches criminal justice at the University of Turabo in Puerto Rico, said the spike in killings is part of a regular cycle of criminal violence.
“We have periods that are really high in criminal violence and they always relate to other social and economic factors,” he told The News.
Gutierrez blamed the spike in crime on a government whose policies “make us feel like we don’t belong.”
He also doesn’t think that the deaths have anything to do with a diminished police presence.
Puerto Rico’s last spike in violent crime was in 2011 when 1,136 people were killed.
“During the 2011 uptick in Puerto Rico we had one of the highest numbers of police in history, so the way I see it, the police is there to deal with daily crime but criminality is something that needs to be dealt with by the social and education system,” Gutierrez said.
Some deaths have been linked to the drug trade, which Gutierrez says has been upended by the hurricane.
“It has suffered just like any business has,” he said.
Drug gangs are fighting their rivals over lost territory, according to a police officer advocate.
“There’s a war over the control for drugs,” Fernando Soler told the Associated Press.
“They are taking advantage of all the situations occurring in Puerto Rico. There’s no power and they believe there’s a lack of police officers. … Criminals are taking care of business that was pending before the hurricane,” Soler said.
Some residents, however, say that they are relatively at ease.
Michael Vicens, who recently opened a surf school in Rincon, said he wasn’t even aware of the uptick in violent crime.
He said he leaves his daughter’s bike unattended and his car unlocked, and has not been targeted.
“So far, nothing has happened,” he said.