Yesterday evening, Osiris Alfonso Velázquez was chased down and shot to death in the middle of the highway. His was Puerto Rico’s 277th violent death this year. Today is the 82nd day of 2011. Someone else is dead by now.
The murder count for 2010 as of December 31st was 983. On January 1st, a man killed much of his extended family in an act of horrific violence that I don’t even want to document here. Last month at a concert with some 8,000 attendees, a man shot and killed a woman who had gotten into an argument with his girlfriend earlier in the evening. On Saturday, someone entered the home of Lorenis Mejías Contreras and stabbed her and her two sons–Néstor and Jeremy, ages 8 and 10–to death. She was eight months pregnant. The night before, Dimarie Brocco Irizarry, a 33-year-old lawyer, took a stray bullet to the mouth on her way home; the occupants of two other cars were shooting at one another, and she was caught in the crossfire. And so on. Some of it’s drug-related (about 34%). Some of it’s not. Some of it is a domestic violence problem that only seems to get worse. I have intimate (secondhand) experience with the latter, and with how the justice system ‘handles it’. It’s fucking terrifying.
This is what’s in the paper every day. It’s so painful.
I keep wanting to make some kind of sense of it. I read a few things about other U.S. cities with similar problems (turns out, for one, that despite all the publicity, major cities’ falling crime rates have never been in sync with what was going on in smaller ones). One factor that came up a lot was police presence/policing strategies. Maybe you’ve heard something about Puerto Rico’s police force. But the U.S. media’s Puerto Rico coverage is generally pretty worthless, so maybe you haven’t. In a nutshell: there is inefficiency, and though not at the level of some other countries, there is corruption and abuse. Ultimately, though, I don’t know enough about changes in policy, funding, or size of the force to be able to comment on whether these things could be related.
I looked at unemployment rates-up from 13.6% in January 2009 to 15.9% in January of this year (seasonally adjusted), having dipped below 10% for only 5 months in the last decade. I found a graph that shows the trends:
Then I looked up murder rates by year, and made a similar chart (1990-2010). It turns out that I’m pretty bad at using the new Excel and can’t get the axes to do quite what I want them to do, but you can find the raw data here.
I was a bit surprised, because it’s really too tidy an explanation, and the link between violent crime and unemployment is clearly not a straightforward one. I have no idea what’s really going on. But things are bad. They’ve been rough, economically, since well before the recession. Schools are bad. Big companies who came to take advantage of tax breaks have left. Jobs are not plentiful. There’s a sizeable amount of young people who are neither employed nor in school. This is not changed by the fact that Fortuño is running around like a crazy person trying to convince people stateside that this is not the case and everything’s on the mend. (Seriously. He went to CPAC. Like that‘s what we need right now, a giant dose of “fuck you, poor people”.)
I’m ambivalent about posting this, because I hate for people to see only the ugliness in a place I love so deeply. But it’s weighing on me. And nobody talks about it.
So there it is.
Update: By the end of March, the death toll had climbed to 301, higher than any year on record.