SAN JUAN — Human rights groups and activists are demanding that Puerto Rican and U.S. authorities launch an investigation into the shooting of an environmental activist by private security personnel in the coastal town of Aguadilla on Sunday.
Activists from Camps Pelicano and Carey, accompanied by representatives for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Sierra Club, Amnesty International, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and Power 4 Puerto Rico, held a press conference on Thursday to denounce the shooting of activist Ángel Luis Torres Rosado, who was shot in the leg by security forces hired by Aguadilla Pier Corporation while protesting illegal construction on top of Cueva Las Golondrinas.
“The shooting of an environmental activist by private security guards protecting an illegal construction site that threatens the community and the environment is the latest escalation in Puerto Rico’s police supporting private developers over the public interest—and the law,” said Erica González, director of Power 4 Puerto Rico.
During a “family day” meant to protest the illegal construction on public land, activists commandeered a fleet of speedboats and kayaks to take them to Muelle de Azúcar, which has been closed to the public since Aguadilla Pier Corporation, a private company owned by Carlos Román González, began building in the area.
A security guard, reported to be Cesar Toledo Montilla, opened fire on activists. Torres Rosado was hit in the left leg with one bullet, grazed by another, and hit with several less-lethal projectiles. He was carried onto a civilian boat by other activists so he could receive the necessary emergency medical care for his injuries.
Fifteen or more shots are said to have been fired at activists, but Torres Rosado was the only one hit. One bullet ran through an activist’s hat, though she was physically unharmed. Others were injured by the less-lethal bullets.
“After examining the walls where bullets hit and the videos of the shooters, between two and three, it appears that these bullets were directly fired at the heads of the unarmed protesters,” said Laura S. Nazario Lameiro, president of Campamento Carey Inc. and the partner of the activist who was shot.
She claims Torres Rosado was hit by a 9mm FC Luger bullet, likely the hollow-point variant, which expands on contact and causes more damage. However, she says that none of her partner’s bones or tendons were affected.
Activists claim that dozens of police were in the area, both in their cruisers and in boats, but did not intervene before activists were shot at by private security forces. After the shooting, riot cops arrived in the area and arrested six activists, who were later let go.
Police also arrested Toledo Montilla, who was released later during the night. Toledo Montilla was reportedly carrying two guns, even though Puerto Ricans can only legally carry one firearm at a time.
“It’s part of a plan to terrorize protesters, and the orders come from above,” said Fermín Arraiza, legal director of ACLU Puerto Rico. “What I want people to know is that this does not happen by accident. Police are looking the other way.”
The groups urged the Puerto Rico Police Department, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Police Monitor of Puerto Rico, and members of the U.S. Congress to investigate the shooting, the destruction of natural resources, and the governmental organizations allowing such things to happen.
Activists led by Rep. Mariana Nogales Molinelli of the Citizen’s Victory Movement founded Campamento Pelicano on January 3 to protest the destruction of natural resources in Aguadilla by Aguadilla Pier Corporation and The Cliff Corporation, which is building a series of real estate properties. The activists have been verbally assaulted multiple times by private security and attacked once before.
Activists have been bringing attention to the issue since 2018, leading the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources to issue a demolition order for the structures built illegally on top of Cueva Las Golondrinas by Aguadilla Pier Corporation and a stoppage order for the apartments being built by The Cliff Corporation. The structures remain in place, however, and construction has continued.
Jaris Delgado, a spokesperson for Campamento Pelicano, claimed that construction was continuing even as the press conference was being held.
“It’s intentional public policy to dismantle governmental agencies to give benefits and advantage to private businesses,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, former speaker of the New York City Council.
González of Power 4 Puerto Rico brought attention to the recent murder of Manuel “Tortuguita” Páez Terán by Georgia State Patrol on January 18 in the Weelaunee Forest in southeast Atlanta as part of the struggle that land defenders and activists face while trying to protect the environment from developers.
Liza Gallardo, executive director of Amnesty International’s Puerto Rico Chapter, said that a coming report from her organization found that of at least 20 activists killed in January 2022 in the Americas, 18 were environmental activists. She stressed that the use of lethal weapons against activists is a line that cannot be crossed.
“We don’t want Puerto Rico to join the list of countries where it is lethal to defend human rights, especially environmental ones,” Gallardo said.
While the DRNA has decreed that the structures on top of Cueva Las Golondrinas need to be demolished, Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega has said that the process for acquiring the permits to demolish them is still on course. The mayor of Aguadilla has filed an injunction for the demolition permits, and the hearing will be held later this month.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL