US accused of abandoning its citizens to drug violence in Puerto Rico

The Obama administration and Congress have abandoned four million U.S. citizens to spiraling drug-related violence in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño said in scathing testimony before a House panel Thursday, Julian Pecquet reports in this article for The Hill.

Under pressure to explain reports of widespread corruption in the U.S. territory’s police forces, Fortuño hit back by faulting federal law enforcement agencies for largely ignoring the Caribbean’s booming drug trade in favor of a heavy focus on the Mexican border and southern Florida. Puerto Rico, he said, receives a disproportionately low share of federal agents and money even as its murder rate has climbed to six times the national average and guns pour in from U.S. states.

“It is clear that over 4 million U.S. citizens in the Caribbean territories are being left under-protected,” Fortuño said in written testimony to the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management. “When American lives are in danger, we have a moral obligation to protect them wherever they may be. I know you share my belief. And I need your commitment to act on this principle.”

Subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) opened the hearing by calling for a “comprehensive strategy to counter the cartels.” And the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), raised concerns with the island’s 17,000-member police department, the second largest in the United States.

“The Puerto Rico Police Department is broken in a number of critical ways,” Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said last year in releasing a 143-page findings letter on problems with the department. “The problems are wide ranging and deeply rooted, and have created a crisis of confidence that makes it extremely difficult to develop police-community partnerships that are a cornerstone of effective policing.”

And the American Civil Liberties Union released a report on Tuesday calling on the U.S. Justice Department to take control of the Puerto Rican police force, accusing it of a “culture of unrestrained abuse and impunity.”

Fortuño on Thursday said he has taken steps to rein in the police department, including establishing an independent monitor.

He pointed out, howeverm that the force remains underfunded by U.S. standards, receiving $800 million per year for 17,000 officers serving 3.7 million people versus the $700 million the Broward County Sheriff’s Office gets for 3,000 officers serving a population of 1.7 million people.

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