Bodies Pile Up As Drug War Rages Again In Puerto Rico

Drug lords in Puerto Rico seem to be taking cues from their murderous counterparts in Mexico, beheading rivals and dumping bodies in public places.

Agents escort a defendant for processing in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Agents escort a defendant for processing in San Juan, Puerto Rico


The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has once again become a primary battleground in the U.S. government's grueling war on drugs. Drug-related violence in Puerto Rico, a U.S. protectorate, has claimed more than 850 victims so far this year.

In the past two weeks, U.S. federal law enforcement officers have busted three dangerous drug trafficking organizations, arresting their leaders, including a local politician, who also happens to be the son of an influential mayor.

Traffickers in Puerto Rico have begun mimicking their counterparts in Mexico by decapitating rivals and leaving their bodies along the side of roads as gruesome messages for other foes.

Dozens of weapons, including AK-47s and high caliber pistols, are confiscated each month. Investigators say many criminals are now using U.S. postal and delivery services to have them sent to the island from the U.S. mainland.

Federal law enforcement believes that traffickers are also financing the political campaigns of some local lawmakers, especially those serving in the island's legislature. According to the San Juan daily El Vocero, the FBI has several active investigations into some politicians to determine whether they are profiting from narcos.

"It is raining money and drugs here in Puerto Rico," Pedro Janer, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean division, tells CBS News.

This past week, agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) arrested the son of the mayor of the town of Cánovanas after he was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly being one of the leaders of an organization that imported more than 1,000 kilos of marijuana from Mexico through California.

The arrest of 28-year-old Christian Soto, who serves as a member of the Cánovanas city council, sent shock waves throughout Puerto Rican society. His father, Mayor José "Chemo" Soto, is an influential member of Governor Luis Fortuño's pro-statehood New Progressive Party. The son was planning on running of a seat in the House of Representatives next year.

Criminology experts agree that money from drug trafficking is fueling parts of the economy and has influenced the way politics is played out on this island of 3.8 million. "Whether Puerto Rico has become a ‘narco society" or not, is still up for debate among academics, but it is a fact that an economic structure from drug trafficking has been institutionalized," criminologist Gary Gutiérrez tells Inter News Service.

Even U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez acknowledged this week that many police officers are on traffickers' payrolls. Her comments reflect the conclusions of a three-year U.S. Justice Department inquiry into the Puerto Rico Police Department. In a scathing report released Sept. 8, the government accused the force of committing rampant and successive civil rights violations while citing dozens of cases of officers who have been arrested or convicted for protecting drug traffickers.

In October 2010, the FBI conducted its largest police corruption operation in its history when agents arrested 89 local law enforcement officers for drug and firearm violations. Among them were 61 members of the police force.

With a 16% unemployment rate, many youths have resorted to helping drug gangs distribute narcotics at different points across the island, especially in public housing complexes. The battle for control of these points has pushed the island's homicide murder rate, which many expect this year will break the 1994 all time high record of 993 murders.

In the early 1990s, the federal government embarked on a major anti-trafficking offense when investigators discovered that Puerto Rico was increasingly being used as springboard for South American cartels to get their narcotics into the United States.

The mainly Spanish-speaking residents of this U.S. territory say they are fed up with what they say is lack of will by local law enforcement, which has allowed a return to the drug wars of an earlier decade. They have begun to hold public protests to demand an end to violence. But in a recent radio interview, Police Superintendent Emilio Díaz Colón insisted that the force was working hard to catch drug traffickers.

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting resident commissioner in U.S. Congress and a former justice secretary, publicly called on the superintendent to crack down harder or step aside. Pierluisi and Díaz Colón are members of the same governing party.

Martin Delfín

Photo - U.S. DEA

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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