HoustonPress Story on Puerto Rico’s Crime Culture Simplifies the Issue and Offers Nothing

Originally published at JulioRVarela.com

I am tired.

I am tired of how the US mainland media continues to portray the island-territory of Puerto Rico with one broad brushstroke—that it is a new hotbed of violence and chaos. Recently, Fortune’s Cyrus Sanati told U.S. billionaires to “beware” of Puerto Rico, saying that the island “has a bevy of social and economic problems that appear to be getting worse by the day, making it an inhospitable place for a wealthy individual seeking safety and stability.” Sanati’s piece was criticized by many of the island, not because part of it was true, but because his conclusion was way too simplistic. Does Puerto Rico have problems? Yes? Is it a modern-day crime and murder war zone? Not even close. But if that is what the U.S. media wants you to believe, why not?

Sanati even admitted via Twitter that his knowledge of Puerto Rico is only cursory when he tweeted the following response to the Latino Rebels Twitter account:

Now a new story from HoustonPress called “Bloody Tide: How Puerto Rico Affects the U.S.” is painting too much of a similar picture that quite frankly does more harm to Puerto Rico’s perception. Written by Michael E. Miller and Casey Michel, the in-depth piece (it spans over seven digital pages) depicts Puerto Rico in such a negative light, you wonder why anyone would want to live there. As the piece states: “The “Isle of Enchantment” has become bewitched by violence. A crackdown on drugs coming across the Mexican border has only pushed contraband through the Caribbean, transforming the American commonwealth into the newest nexus for narcotraffickers.” (NOTE: Miami New Times also ran the piece.)

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Later on, the story continues:

Economic hardship begets drug-running, which begets violence, which begets a murder rate normally reserved for postcolonial power struggles.

Yet Americans who ignore the island do so at their own peril. As Puerto Rican politicians make an unprecedented push to become the 51st state, the commonwealth has become more central than ever to the United States’s drug and crime problems. [Police chief Hector Pesquera] estimates that 80 percent of the narcotics entering Puerto Rico end up in East Coast cities, particularly Miami and New York. Guns and money move in the opposite direction, and fugitives flow freely back and forth, frustrating officials. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are pouring into Florida, New York and Texas to escape the gunfire gripping their homeland.

The writers also want you to make sure that the violence in Puerto Rico was always Puerto Rico’s fault and never anyone else’s:

This isn’t the first time waves of violence have broken over Puerto Rico. Perched at the strategic entrance to the Caribbean, the Connecticut-size island has a long and bloody history. Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León slaughtered Taíno natives beginning in 1508. Over the centuries, slave uprisings and independence movements were put down with deadly force. By 1898, the colony had won a degree of autonomy, only for the Spanish-American War to transfer control to the United States.

When Puerto Rican politicians voted for independence in 1914, the United States responded by granting boricuas (anyone living on the island) U.S. citizenship — just in time to be drafted for World War I. Another 30 years passed before Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own governor.

Under U.S. rule, the island became a popular vacation spot. But by the 1980s, with Colombian cocaine flowing through Puerto Rico to south Florida, violence became endemic. Murders decreased in the 1990s as drug routes shifted to Central America and Mexico, but in 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared an assault on cartels. Two years later, the United States launched its own $1.6 billion Merida Initiative to combat gangs.

“That is why in the past three years, Puerto Rico has become increasingly visible in regard to drug scandals,” Bagley says. “This is an unintended consequence of the pressure being brought in Mexico and Central America.”

Today drugs from HaitiColombia, Vene­zuela and the Dominican Republic stream in on Jet Skis and go-fast boats. “Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, illegal contraband that makes it to the island is unlikely to be subjected to further U.S. Customs inspections,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, head of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said during a hearing last year.

Let’s step back for a minute: Are the writers actually connecting Puerto Rico’s current crime problems to Ponce de León, as if violence has always been embedded in Puerto Ricans? In addition, I am still trying to figure out what the connection is between 1508 to 1898 to 1914 to 2013.

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The real and only reason why Puerto Rico has a problem with murders and drugs is simple. The territory is part of the largest drug market in the world: the United States of America. Without demand for drugs from the mainland, the current activity on the island would be non-existent. Yet the Houston writers say nothing about that very simple fact. The colonizers need their pot and cocaine, and the colony is more than happy to deliver it to them, while shooting up people in the process.

The piece’s paternalistic tone continues, especially when it made reference to the recent boycott of La Comay, suggesting that the events surrounding the boycott “seemed to expose a newfound heartlessness, as if boricuas had become numb to the violence.” Instead of focusing on the positive that such an event produced, the Houston piece almost treated the boycott as an exception, while making sure to keep including words such as “bloody tide” and “carnage” central to its narrative. When you want to manufacture the perception of “chaos,” you need to give the readers what they want, right?

Nonetheless, the real issue about Puerto Rico is hidden deep in the piece, when the writers say the following:

Truth is, there’s little willpower in DC to spend heavily on an island of 3.6 million people whose ballots don’t count. Perhaps that’s why Puerto Ricans are debating louder than ever their identity as a U.S. commonwealth. Whenboricuas went to the polls last November, 54 percent rejected the status quo. But the vote was split among those who favored independence, statehood or remaining a commonwealth. [Luis] Fortuño — the governor who appointed Pesquera — was dumped out of office.

Yes, there is very “little willpower in DC” right now, and that is why many Puerto Ricans —both on the island and on the mainland— are working together to change that. There is no mention of that movement at all the Houston piece, because why try to present a full picture when your goal is to just promote fearful perceptions of Puerto Rico? Why would you want to include more information about the Comay boycott movement and what it did to connect boricuas even more? Why would you mention Parranda PR or new other organizations that are working hard to change the perception that the Houston story perpetuates? Because that would mean sharing more of the truth about what is positive about Puerto Rico and the truth sells less stories that the sensational ones.

I just visited the island last week, my third visit this year. Does Puerto Rico have serious problems? Yes. Is it a war zone riddled by “carnage” and a “bloody tide?” That is a bit too much, and it is unfortunate, since all the Houston story does is scare people away from the island and helps to promote a negative cycle of criticism that offers very little solution to the problem. If the writers of the Houston piece were truly sincere in helping to change the dialogue about Puerto Rico, they should be ready to follow up with stories that reflect that change. They had a great story to cover last week with what the Puerto Rican baseball team did during the World Baseball Classic, for example.

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But I doubt that will happen because in the end, the colonizer needs to keep the colony in check, and it will use all possible means to accomplish that.

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Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  UnivisionForbesand The New York Times.

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