LOIZA, Puerto Rico » As people strolled past the Alambique liquor store here recently, the puddle of blood and the bullet-shattered storefront behind it scarcely merited a glance. Yet another young man had been shot. Yet another tally would be added to the record books.
For Roberto Clemente, who lives down the street from the crime scene, such casual acceptance illustrates just how deeply Puerto Ricans have been shaken by the island’s murder wave.
"Enough is enough," said Clemente, 59, who works for the town doing cleanup duties, as he motioned toward the liquor store. "We live unsafely in our homes. The cops know who did what, but there are no witnesses. Even if you see who did it, you stay quiet."
Now plagued by a steadily worsening murder rate, more Puerto Ricans are second-guessing their evening plans, contemplating moving to the mainland and sending away for gun permits in larger numbers to protect themselves. And the police are rolling out new strategies they hope will bring things under control.
There have been 525 murders in Puerto Rico this year, a number that is outpacing last year’s 983 homicides, the second-highest ever, and the 995 in 1994. New York City, on the other hand, with a population a bit over twice that of Puerto Rico, reported 199 murders through the middle of this month, with a total of 536 in 2010.
High murder rates are not unusual in Puerto Rico. Between 1980 to 2005 the average annual homicide rate was 19 per 100,000 in Puerto Rico and eight per 100,000 on the mainland.
Murders on the island declined early last decade, only to spike again recently for the same reasons they did 20 years ago, when drug trafficking, gangs and carjackings rocked the island.
Jose Figueroa Sancha, a former FBI agent who is now superintendent of the Puerto Rico Police Department, said the 17,000-member force (the second largest in the country, after New York’s) is now using CompStat, a computer system for tracking crime patterns that was first used successfully in New York City.
"We are transforming the police force and reorganizing them," Figueroa said at his headquarters. "We will give them the weapons they need and also the technology we need."
Last year, Gov. Luis Fortuno deployed the National Guard to try to curb the killings, a tactic that was used in the early 1990s. But the extra patrols proved ineffective.
While the homicide plague predominates in poor areas, the concern has become acute this year because it has occasionally spilled into San Juan’s tourist areas and crossed into wealthy districts. It has also broken into the open, with shootouts occurring on city streets and major thoroughfares.
On Wednesday, for example, Maurice Joseph Spagnoletti, an executive vice president of Doral Bank in Puerto Rico, was shot to death as he drove his Lexus down a busy road in San Juan shortly after rush hour. The assailant fired three shots into his neck.
The police in Puerto Rico say that nearly half of all homicides on the island — a popular way station for narcotics shipped from South American to the United States — are connected to drug trafficking turf wars. Of the other half, 18 this year were related to domestic violence and 18 involved people who were gay or transgender.
Two murders were recently reported in Condado, a tourist section, but Puerto Rico has seen no decline in bookings, said Clarisa Jiminez, the head of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association. "It is true we have faced some situations in the past," she said, "but the tourist areas are very safe."
Recognizing that the island’s homicide rate is unacceptably high and spiraling higher, Fortuno has labeled it a priority while underscoring that the incidence of other crimes, like robbery and burglary, has decreased.
The Police Department intends to extend training to seven months and beef up instruction on topics like community policing, civil rights and the use of force, Figueroa said. The department will also begin a system of data collection on incidents that involve the use of force. A new anonymous tip line and website were inaugurated recently.
The department has been under investigation by the Justice Department since 2008, and the American Civil Liberties Union has been pressing the government to finish.
"An important component of this is the Police Department’s relationship with the community," Figueroa said. "There have been allegations of police brutality, especially in the Dominican and gay communities.
The civil rights group has compiled its own report listing accusations of abuse by police officers against Puerto Ricans, including the poor, students and workers.
The past 18 months have seen an increase in the number of protests by Puerto Rican workers and students against the government, which has cut 23,000 jobs and raised university tuition. The police have reacted forcefully to protesters, in some instances using tear gas, Tasers and night sticks. Several protesters have reported being beaten, the ACLU said.
"While it is nothing new that police have had carte blanche in their dealings with the low-income and immigrant community, it’s the first time it has broken through to dissidents, students and the middle class," said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU’s executive director.
Romero said he applauded the Police Department’s recent efforts to address these longstanding problems. "But until the reforms are implemented, it’s hard to know how serious the reforms are," he said.
The worry is palpable in and around San Juan, even as far away as Ponce, that the problem is getting worse, not better.
One woman, a crime victim who was too afraid to give her name, said she was still panicked by an attempted carjacking she experienced nearly three years ago, as the wave was beginning anew.
A man walked up to her Lexus as she was parked in a wealthy neighborhood and pointed a gun at her face. Her two children sat in the backseat. He tried to open her doors. Instead, she put the car in reverse and fled quickly.
She wound up running the man over without realizing it and killing him. He had had more than two dozen charges against him and had been responsible for several other carjackings that week.
The woman is still frightened and has thought about moving to the mainland.
But in Loiza most residents don’t have that option. They have grown fatalistic about the homicides and violence, in general, which has residents avoiding whole swaths of their own neighborhood.
"Now we leave it to God," said Antonio Ramos Garcia, 59, a lifelong resident who works for the local election board. "Now we leave it to God."