Police Corruption Threatens Puerto Rico's Drug War
CHERYL CORLEY, host:
I'm Cheryl Corley. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
A lost boy of Sudan grows up and works to help redevelop his war-torn country. That's coming up.
But first, it's time for our weekly Dispatches segment, where we turn to reporters from around the globe.
This time, we turn to the U.S. territory Puerto Rico. An escalating drug war there has had deadly consequences for its residents. Drug trafficking has been blamed for 700 deaths each year, with the country being used as a transport stop in the Caribbean for cocaine and heroin smuggling from Colombia.
Now Puerto Ricans are reeling for more bad news. About 100 police officers in Puerto Rico are currently under investigation by the Puerto Rico Department of Justice for aiding in drug trafficking.
Joining me to talk about this is Frances Robles, who covers Puerto Rico, along with the Dominican Republic and Cuba for The Miami Herald. And she joins us from member station WLRN Miami. Frances, thank you for joining me.
Ms. FRANCES ROBLES (Correspondent, The Miami Herald): Thanks for having me.
CORLEY: Well, how bad a problem is this when we talk about police corruption in Puerto Rico?
Ms. ROBLES: You know, what's really interesting? One of the things that a lot of the law enforcement authorities kept on stressing is that the Puerto Rican police department is absolutely enormous. It's second only to New York, and New York has twice as many people. So if you'll look at the numbers, okay, sure, maybe you've had a thousand police officers fired between 1993 and 2000, but that's out of a pool of 20,000 cops. That said, I don't think there's a drug dealer in Puerto Rico who doesn't have a cop on his payroll, and that's including to protect shipments using their patrol cars.
CORLEY: That's pretty amazing.
Ms. ROBLES: I think so. What a lot of the authorities there say, say well, okay, it's bad, but it used to be a lot worse.
CORLEY: I suppose money might be the incentive for some officers who might be involved in helping drug cartels out. What's a police salary, and is there any talk of increasing it at all?
Ms. ROBLES: Absolutely. That's a huge issue. One of the things that the police union talked to me about is that the salary is about $26,000 a year. But you know what? It used to be less. It used to be around 22 or $23,000 a year. And the cost of living in Puerto Rico is very, very high. So I don't know if they can continue raising it and if that solves the problem.
CORLEY: Are they taking any kind of extra surveillance measures - or what are the police doing in an effort to keep track of police on the force, officers on the force?
Ms. ROBLES: One of the things that the Puerto Rico police department is doing is that they're relying a lot more on federal law enforcement agencies. The FBI and DEA do - both have offices in Puerto Rico. And a lot of these big investigations of police corruption are FBI cases. That said, you kind of get a little bit of background murmurings from the police saying that the FBI and the DEA simply have not dedicated enough resources to Puerto Rico.
The law in Puerto Rico really prohibits the local police in terms of wiretaps, tapping phones or using body microphones and things of that nature. They can't hold suspects without bail. So they're really leaning on the FBI and the DEA to do these kinds of investigations. So what they're doing is that in investigating drug traffickers, generally they're finding the police that are helping those drug traffickers.
CORLEY: Is there any kind of organized effort? You said that these drug traffickers have at least one police officer on their payroll. So is there some organized effort by these cartels or traffickers to put police on the payroll to make sure?
Ms. ROBLES: I got this sense from everyone that I interviewed that it was very disorganized, in fact - both the cartels, so to speak, and the hiring of the police officers. Because I wanted to know, you know, is this something that is, goes from the bottom of the police department all the way up and you have a network or ring of cops working together? And the police sense of it is no, that you basically have one guy here and one guy there and when you add them up, you may end up having 50 at a given time, 50 on the drug dealer's payroll. But they also said that, interestingly enough, even the drug organizations are not that organized. It's basically a couple of young guys in different housing projects duking it out using heavy-duty firearms, but they're not organized crime syndicates as we would know them to be.
CORLEY: You talk about this being a systemic problem. Is there an example you can give to show how widespread it is?
Ms. ROBLES: One of the things that happened last year that was so interesting was the murder of a drug dealer named Coquito Lopez. Now theoretically, it would be a murder like any other. But what ended up happening is when this guy died, all of his connections in the highest powers of Puerto Rico started coming to light. It came out that he had accompanied a Puerto Rican senator on prison inspections. It turned out that his mother was giving free catering to the police department. So right now, a hundred police officers are under investigation in Puerto Rico. Well, what do you do about it when you have a guy like Coquito Lopez who has senators, judges and prosecutors on his side?
CORLEY: Well, what do authorities believe they have to do to stop problems with corruption?
Ms. ROBLES: What the superintendent of police told me is that one of the things that he's doing is tightening up the recruitment process. They're going to be doing a lot more investigations of the cops coming in. They're raising the age. It used to be 18, now it's going to be 21. They're going to be polygraphing some of the officers to weed out local hooligans who maybe they have been hiring in the past.
CORLEY: And what about the people who live in Puerto Rico, and what do they think about the fact that you have so many police officers - even though the department says it's a small number - but you have these police officers who are essentially guarding drug shipments and things like that. Is that diminishing the trust that folks have in the police there?
Ms. ROBLES: I think Puerto Ricans are really tired of corruption. Puerto Rico has a very long and sad history of corruption everywhere from, you know, from the water department to the city hall. And so I think they've come to expect it in all walks of government.
CORLEY: I was reading the article that you wrote and saw that somebody mentioned that it's not a police problem, that the whole problem is really drug trafficking. And does that mean that the department is sort of giving up in a way, and that they always expect that to be a problem? Or are they saying that they can't wipe out corruption if drug trafficking is around?
Ms. ROBLES: I think what they're admitting is that they're losing the war, not that they're giving up. They're trying hard. They're beefing up strike forces and task forces and every other force that you can imagine. The fact of the matter is that an estimated 20 percent of the cocaine that comes - from Colombia pass through the Caribbean, and a good portion of that stops in Puerto Rico.
And so the portion that stops often stays there. So unless they get a handle on that, they can't stop the corruption. They can't stop the cops from working for the drug dealers. So, you know, you have a huge systemic problem of people who are using drugs, people who are selling drugs, and so until you stop those two elements, you don't stop the cops from selling it, also.
CORLEY: Frances Robles covers Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and Cuba for The Miami Herald, and she joined us from WLRN in Miami.
Thank you so much.
Ms. ROBLES: Thanks for having me.
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