15 Days of Fury: How Puerto Rico’s Government Collapsed

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A report by Simon Romero, Frances Robles, Patricia Mazzei and Jos A. Del Real for The New York Times.

The uprising that toppled Puerto Rico’s leaders might be traced to a day earlier this month, when the governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló, was not even on the island. He was on vacation in Europe, curating his Instagram feed with smiling pictures of him and his wife savoring Paris.

The political legacy that he and his father — a former governor — had built began to show the first signs of crumbling a few days into the trip, when two top former members of his administration were indicted on federal corruption charges. A day later, several nasty text messages that he and his close circle of powerful friends had written — one calling a prominent female politician a “whore” — were leaked. Mr. Rosselló frantically cut his vacation short, hopping off a cruise ship at a port of call and onto three different planes, leaving his family behind.

The Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, a women’s group that had long been at odds with the governor, had already sprung into action. When Mr. Rosselló walked off a plane on July 11, looking bleary-eyed and distracted, he found nearly 100 people brought in by the feminist collective and other activist groups, waving protest signs and demanding that he step down.


“We went to the airport so that he would see the country that he was coming back to,” said Shariana Ferrer, one of the organizers. “This wasn’t just about words. This wasn’t because they called us whores. This was a governor who abused his power.”

“Nobody can claim credit for this moment, because there are no leaders in this movement,” said Shariana Ferrer, of the Colectiva Feminista. “This is an organic movement.”

In an extraordinary turn of events, some of the same people who had been privately denigrated by Mr. Rosselló and his confidants — journalists, feminists, musical performers and L.G.B.T. organizers — turned the tables on the governor. Capitalizing on already festering ire over the territory’s weak economy, graft scandals and a callous response to Hurricane Maria, the small demonstration at the airport turned into a series of mass street protests that toppled his government in just two weeks.

Mr. Rosselló, a 40-year-old M.I.T.-educated engineer and scion of a political dynasty, announced on Wednesday that he would step down — left virtually alone after the departure of many of his top aides and officials. “My mandate is over, and the most I wish for is peace and progress for our people,” he said.

His dramatic ouster, and the furious rejection of the corruption that Puerto Ricans perceive as deeply rooted in their government, shook the island to its core and challenged a long-entrenched political system. All the more remarkable was that the people who made it happen came from outside the establishment that, until now, comfortably ruled this island of 3.2 million.

“Nobody can claim credit for this moment, because there are no leaders in this movement. This is an organic movement,” Ms. Ferrer, of the Colectiva Feminista, said this week. “But it’s not spontaneous. This is the culmination of years of grass-roots work, community work, and social political organizations.”

In many ways, the turbulent events that caused the governor to resign had their beginnings in late June. That is when Raúl Maldonado Gautier, the secretary of the Treasury and a former chief of staff to the governor, told a radio interviewer that there was an “institutional mafia” operating a profit-making business in his department. Some of them had threatened him and tried to extort him, he said.

Raúl Maldonado Nieves, center, took to Facebook to denounce Mr. Rosselló as corrupt. In short order, the police showed up at his house.
CreditRamon ” Tonito ” 

He was fired.

“We cannot allow people in the government who are not loyal to the governor or the central administration,” Erik Rolón, Mr. Rosselló’s deputy chief of staff, told reporters.

Mr. Maldonado’s son, Raúl Maldonado Nieves, took to Facebook to denounce Mr. Rosselló as “corrupt.” In short order, the police showed up at his house, purportedly to investigate whether he had the proper permits for a cache of firearms he owns, and his lawyer declared that a political war was underway.

Evidence of the kind of corruption Mr. Maldonado Gautier was talking about became shockingly apparent on July 10, when the federal Justice Department unveiled a wide-ranging indictmentaccusing the former education secretary and the former executive director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration of unlawfully steering about $15.5 million in federal contracts to politically connected consultants.

The same week, Sandra Rodríguez Cotto, a local blogger, was releasing some of the first eye-opening messages from the chat group the governor had shared with 11 top-ranking officials, friends and lobbyists on the Telegram messaging app. Even the few messages initially released showed that the smooth, polished image that the governor displayed in public disappeared when he was among friends; he and his associates talked in private with open contempt about those around them.

Ms. Rodríguez Cotto herself did not escape their commentary. “They mocked me for being a woman, for being black, for being fat,” she said.

Sandra Rodríguez-Cotto, a local blogger, was the first to release eye-opening messages the governor had shared with officials, friends and lobbyists.

The governor, after hurrying home from vacation, apologized for the leaked texts immediately. “Yes, I use bad language, I send memes, I send sarcastic things,” he told journalists. “I’m not proud of that and when these things happen I start by saying that I apologize.”

But people already had begun to gather on the streets.

The next day, the governor holed up in La Fortaleza, the opulent 16th-century palace that serves as the official governor’s residence. From early morning into the night, he held meetings with the top ranks of his New Progressive Party. First came state lawmakers. Then mayors. Then members of his Cabinet. Then Representative Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting resident commissioner in Congress.

If the governor was to hold on to power, these were the people he needed to remain by his side. But many of them already were worried whether Mr. Rosselló — and, more important, the ruling pro-statehood party — could survive the scandal.

“Internally, all members were really concerned that this might drag down the whole party on the island,” said a person who was at the five-hour meeting with members of the Legislative Assembly, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private conversations. “Everyone was slamming the governor, saying this is only going to get worse.”

One of the mayors, María E. Meléndez of Ponce, left in a huff. She said she felt the governor had glossed over his apology too quickly, trying to divert to future policy actions instead.

La Fortaleza, the colonial-era palace that serves as the governor’s residence in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital.

“I was indignant,” Ms. Meléndez said in an interview.

Still, Mr. Rosselló’s inner circle remained defiant. His chief of staff, Ricardo Llerandi, one of the participants of the chat, practically dared reporters to publish the chat in full, saying the revelations that were being leaked a little at a time were a daily distraction.

“I think that whoever has the chat should make it public,” he said. “Let everything that was written in that chat be known.”

Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, a group of reporters that had started up 11 years ago with crowd funding and donations from various foundations, managed to get a copy of a full two months of the chat — 889 pages of it.

The reporters divvied up the pages and read through the trove. In San Juan’s blistering heat, the reporters stayed in their newsroom until 6 p.m., when the air conditioning was turned off. Then they worked in their cars. The gasoline ran out, so they decamped to a colleague’s house.

What they found was shocking: Members of Mr. Rosselló’s inner circle boasted about unleashing trolls against their critics on social media. They exchanged one meme after another mimicking President Trump, a colossally divisive figure in Puerto Rico. The governor mocked a poverty-stricken woman who had torn down a photograph of him in a government office after being denied food stamps. There were texts about using the government’s advertising budget to assert control over newspapers.


“There’s no other way to describe it: It was an atomic bomb,” Benjamín Torres Gotay, a prominent Puerto Rican journalist, wrote in El Nuevo Día of the scoop published by his competitors. “For the first time, the country could see the ruling class without their masks on.”


Women’s groups, unions, musical performers and L.G.B.T. organizers began to muster supporters and flowed into the streets.

On the morning of July 13, the story about the chats and its accompanying archive spread like wildfire across the island and out to the Puerto Rican diaspora on the mainland. It was as if hell had broken loose in Puerto Rico’s politics.

Luis Rivera Marín, the secretary of state, a member of the chat group and next in line to succeed the governor, said he would step down, calling his resignation a “moral obligation.” Christian Sobrino, another chat group member and the governor’s representative to the federal board overseeing the island’s finances, also resigned.

Political leaders across Puerto Rico tried to understand how far the scandal’s impacts would reach. Luis G. Fortuño, a former governor of Puerto Rico who now practices corporate law in Washington, was on the island visiting relatives when the full archive was published. He was stunned, he said, that Mr. Rosselló, an engineer whom Mr. Fortuño had viewed as a “policy wonk,” could be so callous and careless in private.

Mr. Fortuño reached out in a text message to one of the men in the chat group, writing: “I can’t believe this is happening. I’m sorry for your family.”

Another member of the chat group called Mr. Fortuño that weekend and asked him for advice about what to do.


“I told him the test was if you could look your mother and father in the eye and explain this was all right,” Mr. Fortuño recalled. “If not, it’s time to go,” he told him.

“I got dead silence when I said that,” Mr. Fortuño said.

Despite the turmoil, Mr. Rosselló vowed to remain in power. That first weekend back from his vacation, Mr. Rosselló was alone at La Fortaleza, without his family. He went to an evangelical church on Sunday to seek public contrition — and to shore up his political base among conservatives, who make up a key voting bloc of his New Progressive Party.

But at the same time, activists on the streets were digging in, organizing one protest after another in front of Mr. Rosselló’s residence. They described many of the demonstrations as “autoconvocados,” which translates to “self-convened.” These events blended the staging expertise and the expansive networks that longtime advocates have cultivated with the raw energy of the public.

Nicole Curet, 32, organized a live reading of the Puerto Rico Constitution outside the governor’s residence this week.

After several clashes between police officers and protesters, for example, Nicole Curet, 32, a feminist activist, became interested in hosting an event at La Fortaleza focused on constitutional rights. On Monday, July 22, she put out a call about such an event on Facebook and people immediately responded, offering to help.

Word of the event also spread through social media and messaging services like WhatsApp, where people had been circulating calendars of the protests, and activists from other groups offered to join in.

“One person, I don’t even know his name, he contacted me and was like, ‘I have the audio equipment, I just need a place to plug it.’ Then people from nearby businesses offered to let us run an extension cord,” Ms. Curet said. “At the same time somebody else had a very similar idea and he posted it on Twitter, and so we teamed up.”


By Tuesday night, Ms. Curet was standing outside the governor’s residence reading the Puerto Rico Constitution to hundreds of cheering protesters. Alejandro Santiago Calderón, an L.G.B.T. advocate and a friend of Ms. Curet, read a section of the Constitution on equal rights while holding a large L.G.B.T. pride flag.

The people who organized the protests were not all Mr. Rosselló’s traditional political opponents. Groups advocating for Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States — Mr. Rosselló is a strong supporter of statehood — and other progressive organizations had a hand in kicking off the demonstrations. But the center of gravity quickly spread outward to people not often involved in politics, including artists, who drew in celebrities with huge followings.

The rapper Residente celebrated outside La Fortaleza when Mr. Rosselló announced his resignation late on Wednesday.

Famous Puerto Rican musicians, including the pop artist Ricky Martin, the rapper Residente, his sister iLe, and the Latin trap artist Bad Bunny, flew in to join the protests. The latter three produced a protest song — “Afilando los Cuchillos” (“Sharpening the Knives”) — that had 2.5 million views on YouTube within a day of its release.

Mr. Rosselló held two lengthy news conferences, but each time he tried to contain the political damage, there were more calls from the street for his resignation.

A “considerable” number of Cabinet members were on the verge of resigning, said a former administration official who heard from them about their concerns. A week into the scandal, it had become increasingly clear that Mr. Rosselló would have serious trouble governing even if he remained in office, because he would not be able to appoint people quickly enough to keep up with the rate of attrition within the staff.

Agency heads and other high-ranking employees found themselves unable to reach the governor’s office for feedback on policy initiatives and other work while Mr. Rosselló and his aides were hunkered down at La Fortaleza.


On Monday, as hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets and shut down a major highway in San Juan, Mr. Rosselló gave an interview to Fox News’s Shepard Smith. It was a humiliating debacle. The news anchor badgered the governor to provide a single name of a public official who was still supporting him. The governor thought and mentioned the mayor of San Sebastián, a town of 42,000 people. Not long after the broadcast, the mayor, Javier Jiménez, said the governor had gotten it wrong. He did not want the governor to resign: He wanted him impeached.

Musicians marched through Old San Juan the day after Mr. Rosselló‘s announcement. The governor said he would step down on Aug. 2.

The governor’s wife visited a women’s shelter, apparently trying to spread good will among women’s activists, only for the shelter directors to ask her to take down the photographs she had posted of the visit on Facebook.

On Tuesday, several key aides, including the governor’s chief of staff, quit.

By that afternoon, word began to emerge from La Fortaleza that Mr. Rosselló was preparing to announce his resignation.

Still, protesters ratcheted up the pressure. They designed T-shirts depicting a decapitated Mr. Rosselló and adorned the walls of Old San Juan with anti-government graffiti.

Ms. Curet, the activist, said that when the machinery of protest first kicked into gear after the leaks, she and many others had doubts that the anger over the chat messages would amount to much beyond a few news cycles. But the general public, she said, was not only sympathetic, but eager to join in their demonstrations.

One after another, people said they had had enough.

Finally, 15 days after the first texts had surfaced, Mr. Rosselló had had enough, too.

Near midnight on Wednesday, the governor appeared in a recorded message to announce that he would resign on Aug. 2. The streets of San Juan erupted in celebrations.

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