SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — In the middle of March, Wanda Vázquez became one of the first leaders within the jurisdiction of the United States to impose strict measures to battle the coronavirus pandemic. The governor of Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency and signed a series of executive orders that forced the closure of non-essential businesses, establishing a strict curfew.
As the reality of the crisis hit, so did the governor’s measures. The curfew was extended, starting now at 7:00 p.m. instead of 9:00 p.m., and creating designated days for when people can go out based on the last number of their license plates.
The constant changes to these executive orders, which have been criticized by lawyers and members of the Justice Department for their unclear language, have caused discord between police officers attempting to uphold the law and citizens who are trying to take care of themselves and their loved ones.
But it seems as though citizens and police officers are playing by different rules.
“We have a police force that has been given the charge of working with immunity, and now it’s more confident that it can do whatever it wants with the endorsement of an executive order,” said Pedro Colón Almenas, a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against the government of Puerto Rico.
Last Sunday, the ACLU filed an injunction at a District Court, hoping to get a portion of the Governor’s executive orders marked as unconstitutional. The order says that only members of the family nucleus are allowed inside a house. The plaintiffs argued that Executive Order 20-29 limits people who need to take care of elderly parents and relatives, and puts their lives at risk.
Colón Almenas, Now we have a police force that goes around Santurce communities with their car speakers interfering with people on the streets, sending them home and not allowing conversations between neighbors.
But social media posts have shown that some police officers are acting outside of the executive orders in order to terrorize citizens.
A video where a man on a bicycle was detained using excessive force made the rounds on Puerto Rican Twitter and Facebook this past week.
In the video, two motorized San Juan municipal cops detain the man identified as Jorge González while he was on his way to the supermarket with his wife. The police forced González off his bike, and cuffed him as he resisted while explaining his rights. At the end of the video, around five more police officers arrive at the scene. It’s still unclear on what grounds the police detained González, and González said he is in the process of getting oriented on taking legal action against the San Juan Municipality before his May 10th court date.
Su nombre es Jorge González, un empresario puertorriqueño con multiples negocios de telecomunicaciones y residente del área donde lo intercepta y detiene la policía. Un ciudadano común que tuvo la suerte de capturar el abuso policial que aún existe en Puerto Rico ?? pic.twitter.com/eTk4SM4hOu
— Juan Carlos Pedreira (@juancpedreira) April 8, 2020
Although the municipal police chief defended his officers, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said in an interview with Nación Z that she will be ordering an internal investigation to look into the event.
As always, Puerto Ricans are relying on social media to call out the police’s behavior, including looking the other way when it comes to tourists.
One post circulating on Facebook claimed that police officers in Condado threatened a man that was running through an empty street with arrest, but let tourists walk along the beach freely.
Fidel Rodríguez, author of the post, told Latino Rebels that he’s noticed an increase in police presence in the Condado area, detaining dozens of vehicles daily.
Another post alleged that police detained an older woman for about 25 minutes as she was exiting a CVS.
This post shows police forcefully removing people from their car which had the wrong license plate, and even tasing one of the detainees for resisting.
“There is an excess of power, and a lack of guidance because the executive orders are not clear,” said Condado resident and law student Ali Acosta.
From her balcony, Acosta has seen how police have detained people and asked for identification, people who are walking their dogs (like herself) and demanding people tell them where they are going.
Acosta also said that a lot of the police officers are not from the area and have no idea how to deal with tourists and locals in Condado. She clarified that she has several family members in the police force, and says that they are spread thin and overworked, but have also not been properly briefed on the executive orders.
The latest police data shows that 14 police officers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over nearly 700 are in quarantine.
As of April 7 (the last time data was published), police had arrested nearly 580 people for breaking curfew and handled over 1,300 complaints.
On Thursday evening, the Health Department of Puerto Rico released the long awaited dashboard with up to date coronavirus information, but it has already met controversy for changing the death toll from 40 to 33, and then 39.
While the public urges for a more informed police force, the Vázquez administration is under fire for a $40 million scheme to purchase ventilators and non-FDA approved rapid test kits from a construction company with no prior health equipment experience but ties to the New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) which is currently in power.
Last week I wrote a story about how people are fearful and wary about how this administration would handle the coronavirus crisis. My story here:https://t.co/6qnSFmEhDD
What happened after? The Governor proved them right. Journalists exposed a million $ scheme.
— Natalia (@nataliarodmed) April 9, 2020
The Puerto Rican House of Representatives is currently investigating the event.
Natalia Rodríguez Medina is a journalist based in Puerto Rico. She tweets from @nataliarodmed.