Carmen Santiago, right, and her husband Eugenio Alvarez at their home in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico, Up in Arms

Mass power outages and police absenteeism have put Puerto Ricans on edge. Is buying a gun the only way to feel safe in post-hurricane San Juan?
Carmen Santiago, right, and her husband Eugenio Alvarez at their home in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.

January 2018 was called one of the deadliest months in Puerto Rico’s recent history. Close to half of the island was still dark from Hurricane Maria’s total destruction of the electrical grid on September 20, 2017, leaving many without work in an already-struggling economy. Then “blue flu” struck the Puerto Rico police force: officers who complained they hadn’t been paid enough overtime for their emergency post-storm shifts—or, in some cases, any overtime at all—soon just stopped showing up to work. A reported 2,700 of the 13,000 active police officers were absent daily in both December and January. Not only that, but at least 800 police officers left Puerto Rico last year as part of the exodus of over 135,000 Puerto Ricans believed to have relocated to the United States since the storm. In January, a total of 78 homicides were registered—a 35 percent jump from the previous year.

A police car patrols San Juan, Puerto Rico. (All images from June 2018.)

The spike in homicides coupled with the lack of police presence left many Puerto Ricans uneasy. “There isn’t an adequate number of police to protect the citizens. There just isn’t,” says Jose Robles, a retired police officer who lives in Aguas Buenas, just south of the capital, San Juan. “That was evident in the emergency following Hurricane Maria.” He claims that while police were manning lengthy gas station lines and managing traffic during the power outage, officers “had to leave the people without security. They couldn’t do both; there wasn’t enough [of them]. That’s the truth.”

Robles believes that if people want to stay safe from carjackings, home invasions, and armed robberies, they have to arm themselves. And in the nine months since Maria, many Puerto Ricans have done just that: after the storm there was a 60 percent island-wide jump in firearm-possession applications, as compared to the same period one year before. Like all American citizens, Puerto Ricans have a right to bear arms, although the territory has what its governor, Ricardo Rosselló, calls “some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation”: among other restrictions, residents need to provide three affidavits of “good reputation,” join a gun club, pay at least $300 in fees, and wait up to 120 days to be approved for a firearms license. Some local politicians hope to change that: a bill presented by Senator Nelson Cruz Santiago last year would streamline the process, making it much cheaper, faster, and easier to get licensed. (The amendments are opposed by the governor, and the bill has yet to go to a vote.)

A gun seller shows a rifle to a customer at B&B Target Center, San Juan.

And it may not just be the power outages and blue flu making people feel unsafe; Puerto Rico was in trouble before Maria hit. Stuck in a decade-long recession—during which its government amassed $120 billion of debt in bonds and pensions—Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate has soared as high as 15 percent in the past five years. Despite sustained emigration to the United States both before and after the storm, the unemployment rate still hovers at around 10 percent today, and over 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. Although the homicide numbers in the months since January have been more comparable to what they were last year, Puerto Rico’s average murder rate, at 20 in 100,000 people, is still greater than in any US state; Louisiana, at a rate of nearly 12 in 100,000, is a distant second.

Despite these struggles, it’s not clear whether Puerto Rico has actually become more dangerous: according to the Puerto Rico Police’s most recent numbers, violent crime is now slightly down in 2018 as compared to last year. (It should be noted, however, that violent crime rates can be hard to pin down, and the power outages earlier in the year may have contributed to underreporting.) The secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, Héctor Pesquera, told Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism in April that the decreased number of police officers, which hovered around 13,000 at the time, had “nothing to do” with the homicide rate. “Is it fair to say that more police presence would prevent murders? No,” he said. “When we had 17,000 officers in 2012, there were 1,600 murders that year.”

Carmen Santiago practices target shooting at B&B.
Santiago with her weapons at home in Bayamón.
Stores closed for the day in San Juan. Many businesses in the area have closed permanently due to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis.
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“[In the drug world], if they were going to kill someone, they would take him and kill them. Now, you can be at a shopping center and they’ll fire on everyone.”
A man exits the US Tactical Armory in San Juan.
People take a gun-safety class at B&B in San Juan.

Some locals feel threatened either way. Police say nearly half of Puerto Rico’s homicides are drug-related, but Carmen Santiago, a resident of Bayamón, a municipality west of San Juan, believes the danger has extended beyond the drug world.

“It's not like it used to be,” says the 44-year-old. “[In the drug world], if they were going to kill someone, they would take him and kill them. Now, you can be at a shopping center and they'll fire on everyone.”

Santiago got her firearms-possession permit more than a decade ago; then, four years ago, she took a job at a gun store and range in the Cupey barrio of San Juan and began the process of acquiring a concealed carry license. She now works in security for FEMA, guarding the agency’s Puerto Rico office at the headquarters of the newspaper El Nuevo Día; she carries a Glock 19 handgun on the job.

“When I see the news and things that happen ... I prefer to have [the firearm] and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

“The experience I’ve gained and those courses I’ve taken—it’s not only for people who work in security. They're for civilians, because I started as a civilian,” Santiago says. “Having taken those courses prepared me a lot, and it’s made me more conscious. When I see the news and things that happen ... I prefer to have [the firearm] and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Like many Puerto Ricans, Santiago is concerned about high unemployment; she worries that people have become desperate. “The reality is that the government has shut down jobs. Private businesses have left. There are stores and companies that have been destroyed or haven’t reopened, and people have been left without employment,” she says, speculating that the people begging in the streets may turn to crime when residents—who themselves are struggling financially—don’t give them money.

A client counts ammo at B&B.
Jose Juan Davalos holds an AR-15 rifle at B&B.

Luis Bermúdez is the owner of B&B Target Center, the gun store and range where Santiago worked when she got her concealed carry license. He says there’s been a marked increase in requests for new licenses. “People are very scared,” he explains. “They didn’t have any protection after Maria because there was no communication, no cops in their areas.”

Bermúdez notes self-defense as part of his rationale in owning guns, but for him, it’s also a family tradition of sport dating back to his great-grandfather, a hunter. Bermúdez and his wife are award-winning shooters, and one of his daughters is currently seeking scholarships at colleges with trapshooting programs. He considers the existing licensing processes too complicated and expensive: after the initial possession license, there’s a separate permit for shooting at a range, and another for concealed carry. His shop facilitates the process for applicants, with an on-call attorney and all the necessary paperwork at the ready. However, Bermúdez says, “criminals don’t go to the police department to apply for a weapon. They go one day, pick it up, then kill somebody—nothing else.”

A client looks at a semiautomatic weapon at B&B.
A Puerto Rico police officer leaves the scene of a recent bank robbery in Carolina, Puerto Rico, east of San Juan.

John Negron, a member of B&B, bought his first weapon two years ago. Today, he owns six: a shotgun, two pistols, an AR-15, a revolver, and a .22-caliber rifle. Negron says his family is “on board” with his growing armory. His logic for arming himself is twofold: he wants to uphold the Second Amendment, and he wants to provide security for his wife and young son.

“It is our responsibility, each of us, to first ensure that the Constitution remains in place and in full force, and also it’s our responsibility to take of ourselves,” he says. Negron believes police response time is about 10 to 15 minutes, which he calls “unacceptable.” (The Puerto Rico Police did not respond to Topic’s requests for comment.)

John Negron with his AR-15 at B&B.
Old San Juan.
A police officer in Carolina.

The RL Shooting Club in Aguas Buenas is the meeting place for a group of women who share Negron’s lack of faith in police response. They’re members of Mujeres de Armas Tomar (Women Taking Up Arms), founded about two years ago by Wanda Torres Torres, who’s married to the retired police officer Jose Robles. Ten years ago, Torres Torres was robbed at gunpoint at her beauty salon. According to her, after multiple unsuccessful calls to the police, officers finally arrived 45 minutes later. Her SUV was also stolen, but later recovered; the person arrested for the crime is still in prison.

Three years after that robbery, Torres Torres was attacked again while closing up her salon. She says the assailant put a gun to her chest and fired. She says she felt “something hot,” registering the bullet hole—but she was also armed: after the first attack, she had started shooting at the firing range with her husband, both for fun and for protection. Despite having already been shot, Torres Torres managed to fire at her assailant with her Glock 31 pistol, hitting him in the knee and near his groin. He escaped, but later ended up at the same hospital as Torres Torres, where she identified him. She says she recognized him by the wounds she’d inflicted.

Ineabelle Ortiz practices target shooting at the RL Shooting Club in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico.

“After that, I told people on Facebook to get their licenses. [Women] complained that when they go to [the shooting range], they don’t have anyone to help them, to teach them,” she says. “So what I did was I got certified to be able to help them, to give them courses, to show them how to shoot.”

Mujeres de Armas Tomar now has about 20 core members, with 65 showing up at some monthly events, where they participate in training exercises, such as target shooting and home-defense scenarios. They’ve even learned self-defense techniques with a martial arts instructor. One older member joined after deciding to move from blanks to bullets, feeling less safe after her husband died; a middle-aged woman hoped to overcome a fear of firearms so she could protect herself and her husband, who also carries; a newer, twentysomething member remembered seeing Torres Torres on the news and was motivated to join the group after seeing the call on Facebook.

Maritza Ramos, Mujeres de Armas Tomar founder Wanda Torres Torres, Ada Goitia, and Ineabelle Ortiz at the RL Shooting Club.
Maritza Ramos loads a magazine in preparation for shooting practice.

Not all Puerto Ricans see arming themselves as the solution to their security problems. Jorge López is the coordinator for ALAPÁS, or the Alliance for a Peaceful Society, which offers support groups across the island and the smaller island of Vieques for people who have lost a loved one, often to violent crime. He says the organization’s philosophy is rooted in respect for life. “To have a firearm won’t prevent another death. On the contrary, it could cause another—by accident or negligence, improper use, et cetera,” López explains. “We don't see that as a solution. We understand that more violence doesn’t solve anything. It will only generate more violence.”

He advocates for other means of self-defense, like pepper spray or neighborhood watch initiatives, rather than guns. López says the cycle of violence is perpetuated by the lack of resolution for many crimes: López claims that only about 30 percent of homicides in Puerto Rico are ever resolved.

“We don’t see that as a solution. We understand that more violence doesn’t solve anything. It will only generate more violence.”

ALAPÁS runs an action group called the Comité de Casos No Esclarecidos (Unsolved Cases Committee), through which the families of people killed by violent crime seek justice by demanding follow-ups and continued investigation from the government. At a justice symposium in April 2017, one member presented a statement on behalf of the group that claimed police and investigators give victims and their families preferential treatment based on higher social status or media attention. They called the system inefficient, pointing to a perceived lack of trained personnel who could address cases of violent crime or homicide.

“If more people paid for their crimes, principally homicides, then people may not feel [arming themselves is] necessary,” López notes.

Some, like Wanda Torres Torres, are not convinced there’s an alternative. “It’s time for us to arm ourselves,” she says. “The police don’t get there in time. They don’t pick up the phone. Who’s going to help me?”

A paper practice target at B&B, riddled with bullet holes.
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