Recent Threats of School Shooting in Puerto Rico Part of Worrying Trend in Latin America

Jan 4, 2023
1:11 PM

University Gardens High School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where plans for a shooting were discovered on December 5, 2022, forcing officials to evacuate the school. (San Juan Daily Star)

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico has inherited a lot of cultural artifacts from the United States as its colony, such as fast food, car-centric city design, and Santa Claus.

But the latest import is far darker than the others: the threat of school shootings.

Children, parents, and school staff have been wracked with worry over threats made to two schools in San Juan and a university campus in Mayagüez, as well as an incident where a student brought a firearm to a school in San Juan.

On Monday, December 5, police were sent to University Gardens and Juan José Osuna after school officials were made aware of WhatsApp messages between two students who were allegedly planning a mass shooting. Officials evacuated the schools as a preventative measure and no one was hurt.

Police have identified the students and are currently interviewing students and parents to better ascertain the motive behind the threat.

Puerto Rico Rep. José “Pichy” Torres Zamora (PNP-At-large), whose son attends University Gardens, criticized the Department of Education for their response.

The school “sent a communiqué and gave the kids from all grades a 20-minute orientation in the University Gardens amphitheater, but not to parents. The youth said he thought about it (the threat), that he had the intention. The police said that. They notified me that yesterday, and today it was in the news. And us parents, we haven’t been notified,” Torres Zamora said in a radio interview with NotiUno shortly after the threat was reported at his son’s school.

The following day, December 6, school officials evacuated a building at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez after an alleged “bomb threat” was made by a female student through Twitter in a “joke” post about the long wait needed to register for classes. Again, no one was hurt and police are investigating the incident.

UPR-Mayagüez students criticized the response by the school’s administration for only evacuating one building while leaving other buildings and classes full of students, which could have resulted in a graver incident if there was an actual threat.

While gun crime is high in Puerto Rico, there has never been an active shooter situation inside a school in the archipelago’s history. The closest scenario to that in recent memory was a shootout inside the housing project Vista Hermosa, which forced students of the Evaristo Ribera Elementary School to duck under their desks.

As a response to the threats, the Department of Education (DE) has assured that schools are “safe spaces” and that they would not take any threats lightly.

While no one was hurt in all situations, the events showed that Puerto Rico is underprepared for an active shooter situation inside a school, an event that is becoming all too common across the world.

Not Only in Puerto Rico

Similar to Puerto Rico, other countries across Latin America have experienced a relative boom in threats and mass casualty events at schools in recent years.

In Brazil, a 16-year-old former student with a swastika pinned to his vest killed three and wounded 13 in an attack on two schools on the same street in the state of Espirito Santo. The boy had been planning the attack for two years, according to state police.

Attacks in schools are infrequent in Brazil. But they have ticked up recently, including a former student in Vitóra who entered a school with knives and homemade explosives in August 2022. No one was injured. A month later, a teenager in the northeastern state of Bahia used his father’s gun to kill a student in a wheelchair. Both attackers had met previously through online chat groups, police later learned.

In Mexico, the United States’ nearest Latin American neighbor, there was a shooting in a school in the northern city of Torreón in 2020, which an investigator characterized as “gringo style” because it diverged from the city’s more typical cartel-linked shootings.

All three countries have high rates of gun crime but low instances of violence in schools. According to Homicide Monitor, Puerto Rico had 616 homicides in 2021, with a rate of 18.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. Brazil had 47,353 and a rate of 22.2, while Mexico had 33,308 and a rate of 25.8.

Comparatively, the United States had 23,260 and a rate of 6.9. But the United States has six times its global share of mass shooters, according to studies done by Dr. Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama.

While not measuring school shootings exclusively, the study titled “Global mass shootings: comparing the United States against developed and developing countries” by Dr. Jason Silva, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at William Paterson University in New Jersey, concluded that mass shootings in developing countries were more likely to involve military and police perpetrators and military or police locations. Additionally, the study found that mass shootings in developed countries were more likely to involve ideological and fame-seeking motives and take place in schools.

There have been 48 school shootings with injuries or deaths in 2022 that resulted in a total of 36 people killed, according to Education Week. The most notable of these is the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, 2022, where 19 students and two teachers were killed by a former student of Robb Elementary School.

America’s Exceptional Rate of School Shootings

As far as understanding why there is such a comparatively high rate of school shootings in the United States when compared to Latin America, there are many possible reasons, from sociocultural attitudes to stricter gun control. But there is very little conclusive research about school shootings in Latin America, likely because they are so rare in the region.

Yet there is a lot of ancillary research that could help root out an answer.

For Dr. Paul Hirschfield, associate professor and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Rutgers University, the answer is complex. He warns about not boiling it down to one specific thing, and goes into detail about the possible reasons why Latin America has a lower rate of mass shootings in an article for Foreign Affairs titled “Why Are There So Many Mass Shootings in the United States?” 

When mass shootings happen in the United States, the conversation among many naturally shifts to stricter gun control laws. While U.S. politicians have been reluctant to pass any meaningful, common-sense gun control legislation, research has shown that it would have prevented at least some deaths.

“Some of the people who committed mass shootings actually could have had their guns removed and would have had a hard time obtaining their guns were they in some countries like Brazil—at least until recently,” Hirschfield told Latino Rebels.

Countries like Puerto Rico and Brazil have made the process of acquiring a gun easier—though Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, promptly undid his predecessor’s loosening of gun laws upon taking office on Sunday. The Puerto Rico Weapons Act of 2020 lowered fees, changed regulations from may issue to shall issue, and combined possession and carry licenses into a single license.

However, countries like Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, require a psychiatric examination before gun licenses are granted, which may stop the people most likely to commit mass shooting events from acquiring the weapons needed to do so. Multiple attempts to institute similar psychological examinations for those wanting to acquire gun licenses in the United States have failed. 

While the prevalence of a higher amount and access to guns likely has an impact on the number of school shootings in the United States, experts warn against using that as the single explanation. Instead, some view the largely collectivistic cultures of Latin America as a large part of the possible reason for the significantly lower rate of school shootings.

“People (in Latin America) who are suffering from these various problems that tend to characterize mass shooters might have access to more of that warmth, empathy, and might have more people who both want to help them steer clear of this dark path… and are better equipped to help them because they have those skills,” Hirschfield explained.

Hirschfield points out that Latin Americans typically live within a larger family dynamic than people in the United States, where social alienation among men particularly is higher than it has been in decades. Comparatively, people in Latin America tend to have wider social circles that include extended family members and are reportedly more adept at creating social bonds outside of their typical circles, a concept called “relational mobility.”

“One predictor of engaging in an aggressive act is having the experience of being socially excluded or socially rejected,” Dr. Cristina Salvador, an assistant research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, told Latino Rebels.

She explained that a high level of interdependence within Latin American communities could explain part of the reason there are so few mass shootings, as interdependence could work as a buffer for social isolation and exclusion at different parts of the social processes. She pointed to the study “Culture, Social Interdependence, and Ostracism,” which, while not done on Latin America, centered on other collectivistic societies such as Turkey, China, and India, in comparison to individualistic societies such as Germany and the United States.

“In an individualistic society, if you’re socially excluded by someone, it says something about yourself because that’s sort of the single person, the single unit in the world. But in an interdependent society, you’re embedded in your close social relationships, whether that be family, friends, other people. So if someone socially excludes you, you still have this other group you can rely on, so you’re not as affected by it,” Salvador said.

Research conducted by social psychologist Dr. Geert Hofstede shows that Latin American countries tend towards collectivism instead of individualism, meaning “society fosters strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group,” according to Hofstede Insights.

In terms of individualism, on a 100-point scale, Hofstede’s research gave Puerto Rico a score of 27, Mexico a 30, and Brazil a 38, meaning they tended more towards collectivism than individualism. The United States, meanwhile, received a 91.

Hirschfield put forward a theory for the lack of mass shooters in Latin America: the lack of veneration for the “one-man army” archetype.

As Silva’s study noted, developed countries tend to have more mass shootings linked to fame-seeking motives. Mass shooters in the Western world tend to look for veneration from other would-be mass shooters, which is why they share multiple symbols and “memes” within their manifestos meant for others to pick up on. In fact, the shooter who killed two people and injured a third outside a gay bar in Bratislava last October became “The First Saint of Terrorgram,” a neo-fascist propaganda network primarily based around the messaging platform Telegram.

Ultimately, though, both Salvador and Hirschfield warn against making definite conclusions about the reason for the stark differences in school shootings between the United States and Latin America, as it is a clear mix of several cultural factors alongside a relative lack of access to guns that have led to the lower rate of school shootings and other types of mass shootings in Latin America when compared to the United States.


Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL