SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On Thursday, private businesses used heavy machinery to block the public access path to Cueva del Indio, a Taíno historical site on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, which had been cleared by activists in mid-October.
By law, all beaches and historical sites are considered “property of the people of Puerto Rico,” which means they must maintain publicly accessible paths from the road. Activists claim that private businesses and citizens have blocked these paths using wooden fencing since at least 2016.
Fed up with a slow government response from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish), a few weeks ago, activists decided to take matters into their own hands and take back land that legally belongs to them by removing the fencing themselves. Now the fencing have been put back and vegetation has been torn down to create a new “natural” barrier.
“Things just line up sometimes,” a spokesperson for Defendiendo la Cueva del Indio (DCI-681), Lauce Colón Pérez, told Latino Rebels.
He, alongside Hector “Tito” Varela, a community organizer for the non-profit Surfriders PR, were at Cueva del Indio meeting with a biology professor to see if they could bring some students to the area to study marine life, when they saw an excavator’s claw break the top of the treeline from the shore. They took out their phones and rushed to document the destruction.
Both Colón Pérez and Varela told Latino Rebels they saw the excavator tear down vegetation surrounding the path to create a “green barrier” that blocked the entrance to the path activists had created weeks before.
In the video, you can hear Colón Pérez ask the man driving the heavy machinery, “Do you have a permit from Natural Resources?” while another person asks, “What company do you work for?”
Neither question received an answer. Instead, the man began filming them. Both felt that it was some sort of intimidation tactic.
When they had removed the fencing previously, activists and journalists on the scene were threatened by security and people who security claimed were the “owners” of the property. The man and the machinery quickly left after being confronted.
The ranch next to Cueva del Indio, part of which is built on illegally privatized land, is managed by businessman Carlos Mena and owned by José González Freyre, founder and president of Pan American Grain. Neither has been receptive to activists’ requests for the public access path to be open to all.
Six years ago, González Freyre told Primera Hora that the ranch and the now permanently closed restaurants owned by Mena were meant to “complete the tourist area” in Arecibo, a municipality on Puerto Rico’s northern coast where Cueva del Indio is located.
Multiple activists including Colón Pérez claim that the businesses do not have a DRNA permit and built the fencing illegally, in violation of the Docks and Harbors Act of 1968 and the DRNA’s Regulation 4860. The act established the terrestrial-maritime zone law, stating that there must be a 50-meter space from high tide where no permanent structures can be built.
Regulation 4860 states that private citizens cannot appropriate public land for public use.
Colón Pérez and Varela filed a complaint with the DRNA, but they don’t expect it to proceed much further. Varela claims that complaints “all tend to get stuck” within the DRNA’s legal department.
“There’s a frustration with having done the procedure” only for it to lead nowhere, Varela told Latino Rebels.
Latino Rebels called both of the DRNA Arecibo Office’s publicly listed numbers but no one answered the phone, which tracks with multiple statements made by activists about the organization having a serious lack of personnel across the board. Multiple activists have mentioned that there is only one officer for Arecibo and the surrounding municipalities.
By DRNA law, there is supposed to be a new land demarcation every five years along the shore to deal with the rising sea level caused by global warming. But Cueva del Indio has not had a new demarcation since 1974.
Activists are demanding that land be rematriated based on this demarcation, but they know that the area should be much different once the DRNA creates a new demarcation.
Varela told Latino Rebels that the DRNA conducted a visual investigation of the area last week, and he trusts that they will commit themselves to fixing past issues after the recent hire of a surveyor.
“Action comes when indignation is much larger than feeling comfortable,” Colón Pérez said.
He has been leading community efforts for months now and sees no end to the efforts to take back the land. There will be another event by DCI-681 next weekend, where they plan to once again remove the fencing put up and camp in the area for the night.
Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indian) is a Taíno historical site along the beach of Arecibo renowned for its preserved petroglyphs carved into the cave walls hundreds of years ago by Puerto Rico’s Indigenous inhabitants. It has been an important place for the local community and has been widely studied by researchers of Taíno culture. Pieces of Taíno pottery have been found along the Smith Path, which is the other public access path that leads to Cueva del Indio, drawing attention from historians from across Puerto Rico and beyond.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL