Puerto Rico’s War on Its Poor

Puerto Rico’s War on Its Poor

A report by Marisol Lebrón for The Boston Review.

In February 1993, war was declared in Puerto Rico. In a special legislative address, Governor Pedro Rosselló pronounced that the time for half measures was over. The criminals and drug syndicates behind Puerto Rico’s surge in violent crime had “asked for war . . . and war they will have.” In a dramatic step, the governor would be deploying the National Guard to assist police in drug busts and patrols. This would be a critical component of his government’s new crime-fighting platform, Mano Dura Contra el Crimen (Iron Fist Against Crime). Although guardsmen initially patrolled beaches, movie theaters, malls, and other public spaces, their presence quickly became concentrated in public housing complexes and other low-income communities.

The use of the National Guard to “secure” Puerto Rico’s public housing, rather than relieving anxiety and fear, exacerbated dangerous conditions and left residents bereft of input into the governance of their communities.

Mano Dura, although promoted as a matter of public safety, was intimately linked with the reengineering of Puerto Rico’s public housing authority. The second-largest under U.S. jurisdiction after New York City’s, the authority had been marked for privatization by the prior administration, ostensibly as a neoliberal experiment in whether homeownership would combat the “culture of dependency” that had supposedly taken root there and led to crime and decaying conditions. Naturally, these privatization efforts also held out the promise of lucrative management contracts for well-connected elites. The privatization process was fundamentally undemocratic, and many low-income and black Puerto Ricans rightly felt that Mano Dura’s aim of increased safety was simply a front for their dispossession. Further, it soon became abundantly clear that Mano Dura was not a panacea for the very serious problems facing public housing residents since, in many cases, it actually worsened the violence and discrimination they faced. Undeterred by resistance from those whom Mano Dura was said to help most, the Rosselló administration meanwhile began marketing the campaign as a success in the War on Drugs to be emulated in the United States.

Puerto Rico has had a long history as a laboratory for U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, the foundation of the contemporary Puerto Rican state—the commonwealth agreement between Puerto Rico and the United States—was conceptualized, in part, as a vehicle to showcase U.S. development strategies to the Third World during the Cold War. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Puerto Rico was mobilized as an example of the progress that could be achieved through economic and political alignment with the United States.

However, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992 sounded a death knell for Puerto Rico’s special relationship with the United States and threw into question its preferred status as a commonwealth territory. In many ways, this was a tale of a death foretold. As the United States promoted Puerto Rico’s development model globally, especially throughout Latin America and Asia, its gradual widespread implementation meant the emergence of new markets and labor pools for U.S. capital beyond the archipelago. As Puerto Rico’s economy became more integrated into the U.S. economy—eventually resulting in the extension of federal legal standards and practices, including the federal minimum wage—U.S. capital left the archipelago in search of cheaper labor, better corporate incentives, and less regulation.

In a bid for renewed relevance to the metropole, during the 1990s Puerto Rican elites attempted to reposition Puerto Rico as a model in the arenas of law enforcement and public housing policy, taking it upon themselves to develop new policies and practices regarding security, policing, and public housing policy. For Puerto Rico’s governing elite, it was often more important to be seen as “innovative” in the eyes of U.S. technocrats than to implement policies that actually worked. As in the case of Mano Dura, this was often accomplished on the backs of some of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable populations.

The privatization of Puerto Rico’s public housing was fundamentally undemocratic, and many low-income and black Puerto Ricans rightly felt that Mano Dura’s “increased safety” was simply a front for their dispossession.

Under Mano Dura, approximately eighty-two joint police and military raids—and subsequent occupations—would be carried out in public housing between June 1993 and March 1999. During these raids, police would conduct searches, confiscate contraband, and interrogate residents while the National Guard provided logistical and tactical support in the form of soldiers, helicopters, military vehicles, technology, and weapons. The National Guard was also responsible for setting up surveillance, establishing checkpoints, constructing a perimeter fence around the community, controlling crowds, and detaining suspects that would be taken into police custody. The police and National Guard would then occupy the raided complexes for weeks until a security force of part-time police and private security guards could establish a permanent policing and surveillance presence. This securitization would then provide a stable environment for the management of the complex to be handled by whichever private company had won the bid during a brief process in 1992 that was roundly critiqued at the time for its cronyism and lack of transparency. At its conclusion, the Puerto Rican Housing Authority had awarded contracts to 11 private management firms to deal with the day-to-day maintenance and operation of Puerto Rico’s 58,000 public housing units, affecting approximately 60,000 families living in 332 public housing complexes.

Rosselló’s use of the National Guard would become one its longest “peacetime” deployments in U.S. history. In 1989 Congress had authorized federal funding to permit National Guard units to support drug interdiction and other counter-drug activities. States desiring to participate in the program were required to draw up plans to be approved by the secretary of defense and Department of Justice. Rosselló was able to skirt some of these requirements by evoking “extraordinary” circumstances to justify the mobilization of military power for the archipelago’s war on drugs. Military analysts and strategists therefore watched with curiosity, as Rosselló’s repurposing of the Guard seemed to respond to the challenge of what to do with surplus military technology and personnel following the end of the Cold War—a readymade solution to local and federal police agencies looking to be “tough on crime” while adhering to the neoliberal economic imperative to watch their bottom line.

Others took notice as well. Mano Dura received coverage in major national news outlets, and, in late 1994, Rosselló was asked to testify before a congressional subcommittee on the use of the National Guard to fight crime. Rosselló encouraged the committee members, “with the Cold War won and the Soviet Union dissolved—the time has come to direct more of our attention to internal security issues; to current dangers we face at home: drug-trafficking, and the violent crime that drug-trafficking engenders.” Puerto Rico, Rosselló argued, had “redefined the role of our citizen soldiers” in a way “certainly worthy of study, and maybe emulation.” U.S. policymakers, however, struggled with how to reconcile a declared War on Drugs, and the ready availability of surplus military technology and personnel, with the democratic principle of a necessary separation between military and civilian policing.

Indeed, the Clinton administration had already been actively struggling with this question. In late 1993, a year before Rosselló’s congressional testimony, Washington, D.C., had sought permission to deploy the National Guard to combat drug-related violence. While nearly fifty guardsmen were already on the streets of the District helping police with drug interdiction efforts, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly asked the Clinton administration to make thousands of troops available for up to four months in order to provide tactical support to police during drug enforcement efforts. In a press conference detailing her request in late October 1993, Kelly justified the potential sight of armed soldiers on D.C.’s streets by saying: “We need the Guard’s help. We’ve got a problem that is really of extraordinary proportions. We’ve got to get real and do whatever it takes to provide safety.” Like Rosselló, Kelly appealed to a prevailing sense of panic over “out-of-control” violence.

Four days after Kelly’s inquiry, Clinton denied her request. He based his refusal on the fact that guardsmen are not full time and thus an extended mobilization would disrupt their work and family lives. He was also persuaded by a private memo from his counsel that urged him to deny the request on the basis of more substantive concerns about violations of the Posse Comitatus Act, not to mention horrible optics: “Whatever the general authority, the symbolic significance of the President calling out the military to patrol on a regular basis in the shadow of the White House and the Capitol would be enormous.” Harold Brazil, a member of the D.C. City Council, put it more bluntly when he told reporters from Reuters that he opposed Kelly’s request on the grounds that it “would show the world that America’s capital is no better than the unstable capital of some anarchist, Third World nation.”

The conceptual and physical distancing of Puerto Rico from the United States allowed for the perception that these violations of democratic principles were not already occurring under the U.S. flag and were only possible in the supposedly retrograde space of the Third World.

While it was the initial violent interventions associated with Mano Dura—the “Rescue” stage, in official parlance—that often grabbed headlines, the ensuing privatization of Puerto Rico’s public housing under military occupation was ultimately of equal interest to U.S. technocrats. In many ways, privatization was always imagined as a desired outcome of Mano Dura’s efforts to “cleanse” public housing of drug use and trafficking. Rosa Villalonga, manager of HUD’s Caribbean Office, referred to the early morning sieges on public housing as providing a glimpse at “the light at the end of the tunnel” for the long-term goal of privatizing public housing. For Puerto Rican technocrats, Mano Dura was understood to be the muscle necessary for privatization to succeed.

Puerto Rican elites went out of their way to make Puerto Rico into a technocratic Disneyland. In 1994 they produced a three-day conference about privatization and securitization attended by U.S. housing authorities and hosted at the luxurious Caribe Hilton.

Obviously, it was not possible to justify privatization in such explicit terms. Instead, the official narrative played upon familiar tropes of a culture of poverty within low-income communities. Public housing residents’ alleged lack of proper work ethic and values were to blame for the precarity that marked their lives. According to housing officials, the dangerous and deteriorating conditions that many public housing residents faced were due to the fact that they had no proprietary claim to their housing units, which contributed to their destructive behaviors. Privatizing public housing and encouraging homeownership among residents would instill residents with a new sense of ownership and pride in their community. There was a catch, however: most residents of public housing had no interest in buying their units. The rents were extremely low compared to market rents or typical mortgage payments, so homeownership offered no clear benefits for many. Further, given the criminalization and discrimination that public housing communities often encountered from their fellow Puerto Ricans, those who could afford to start paying rent or making mortgage payments would prefer to do so elsewhere. Undeterred by a seeming lack of resident buy-in, the Rosselló administration used the militarized conditions enforced by Mano Dura to begin privatizing public housing and pushing homeownership schemes, even if residents had better ideas for how to make their communities safer and foster pride.

Rather than relieving anxiety and fear, military-style occupation coupled with privatization exacerbated dangerous conditions and left residents bereft of input into the governance of their communities. While Rosselló’s administration officially celebrated a decrease in the number of robberies and carjackings, Puerto Rico experienced an increase in the murder rate as Mano Dura intensified battles between rival gangs over turf. Images of young men lifeless under white sheets haunted the nightly news and provided stark reminders of the intense vulnerability and proximity to violence that many racially and economically marginalized Puerto Ricans continued to experience. Meanwhile growing arrest and incarceration rates fractured families and communities. The number of arrests under Rosselló increased by approximately one-third over that of his predecessor. There were 16,000 arrests recorded in 1992, in contrast to roughly 21,000 arrests in both 1993 and 1994. Under Clinton’s federal “one strike and you’re out” policy starting in 1996, Puerto Ricans living in public housing faced the additional threat of eviction if they or a family member living with them was convicted of a drug crime. While it seems that the policy was implemented somewhat unevenly in Puerto Rico, dozens of Puerto Ricans and their families were evicted. The constant raids in public housing as a result of Mano Dura carried not only the threat of incarceration for those swept up in the raids, but also the threat of eviction for their family members, a kind of guilt by association.

Nonetheless, Puerto Rico became a pilgrimage site for U.S. and Latin American policymakers and public officials looking to privatize their own public housing and “modernize” policing in urban areas. These visits to see Puerto Rico’s “revolution in public housing” were reminiscent of the trips U.S. and Third World technocrats would take during the 1950s to see Puerto Rico’s economic “miracle” following the establishment of the commonwealth arrangement. Visitors included the mayor of New York City, Mario Cuomo; U.S. Drug Czar Lee P. Brown; governmental delegations from Costa Rica and Panama; and officials from the Chicago Housing Authority, the National Center for Housing Management in Washington, D.C., and the Cuban American National Council in Miami.

Mano Dura was an expression of the neoliberal common sense of our times, under which poor people of color routinely find themselves gentrified and surveilled out of their neighborhoods with the help of police.

For their part, Puerto Rican elites went out of their way to make Puerto Rico into a kind of technocratic Disneyland. For example, in 1994 they produced a three-day conference about privatization and securitization that was attended by, among others, representatives from the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing. The conference, hosted at the luxurious Caribe Hilton, was attended by four staff members of the D.C. agency as well as four of its tenants, and was meant to show how the changes taking place in Puerto Rico’s public housing could be translated to other public housing authorities around the United States. The conference featured workshops on privatization, crime and drug prevention, and entrepreneurship, in addition to tours of three occupied public housing complexes. According to Anne Clark, chairwoman of the D.C. Resident Council Advisory Board, the conference was generative: “We learned quite a bit. . . . We learned about the different ways that residents are starting their own businesses and that the National Guard carry M-16 rifles to secure public housing properties.” While Clark celebrated resident entrepreneurship, which was supported by private management companies and the Puerto Rico Public Housing Authority, her jarringly matter-of-fact description of soldiers patrolling public housing with assault weapons highlights the ways in which security and profit were intertwined and dependent upon one another.

Puerto Rican officials acknowledged that the success of privatization depended on the intervention of the police and National Guard, but the results, they felt, spoke for themselves: private, independent communities instead of low-income neighborhoods of perpetual renters. This rhetoric greatly exaggerated the gains of Puerto Rico’s so-called “experiment in public housing” since, for the most part, only a small number of public housing complexes were actually sold or were slated to be sold by the end of Rosselló’s term. In the vast majority of cases, the government privatized only the management of the complexes. This rhetoric also denied the experiences of Puerto Rican public housing residents, who voiced concern over the failures of both privatization and militarized policing to make their communities safe or even theirs.

Puerto Rico’s “public housing revolution” has not prevented communities from being displaced through the demolition of “particularly troubled” housing complexes. Entire communities disappeared in a cloud of dust, with any sense of ownership gone along with it.

Although the National Guard did not end up being mobilized to secure public housing complexes across the United States, it is nonetheless clear that Puerto Rico was a key player in a conversation taking place during the 1990s that worked to twin privatization and militarized policing as a strategy for urban renewal and public safety. The point of tracing these policy circuits is not that Puerto Rico was the first of its kind, or that these punitive policies and their neoliberal logic were wholly unprecedented. Indeed, Mano Dura, despite the rhetoric of innovation, was the progeny of already existing initiatives, policies, and rhetorics, from Broken Windows policing to the ghetto sweeps that made themselves felt in low-income communities of color across the United States long before Rosselló had ever uttered the phrase Mano Dura Contra el Crimen. As much as Mano Dura served as a policy model, it was also an expression of larger transformations that we now recognize as key components of the neoliberal common sense of our times, under which poor people of color routinely find themselves gentrified and surveilled out of their neighborhoods with the help of police who have been trained and equipped as a domestic military.

As in Los Angeles, Chicago, Ferguson, and other communities ravaged by capital extraction facilitated by the power of a badge, the results in Puerto Rico have been devastating. Public housing residents continue to suffer the wide-ranging effects of systemic discrimination, while the storied public-private partnership that began in the early 1990s—“Puerto Rico’s public housing revolution”—has not prevented the physical infrastructure of public housing from falling into various states of neglect and disrepair. Nor has it prevented communities from being displaced through the demolition of “particularly troubled” housing complexes that apparently even privatization could not help. Entire communities disappeared in a cloud of dust and debris, with any sense of ownership and investment that residents had in their homes gone along with it. Corruption scandals plagued the Rosselló administration, and it would go down as one of the most corrupt in Puerto Rico’s history. The sweetheart deals, the massive spending on public works projects, and the millions and millions spent on securitizing the Puerto Rican landscape should be scrutinized as we search for the roots of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. But this is also part of the neoliberal order which we are now so primed to expect: the white men at the top collect their pay while people of color at the bottom are left with nothing.

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