SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hundreds of government officials and community leaders met in Puerto Rico’s capital on Tuesday to brainstorm ways to fight drug trafficking and other crimes as the U.S. territory faces a dwindling police force and an increase in brazen daylight violence.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said reforming the island’s prison system is one of several measures he believes are needed to make the island safer, adding that his administration also will take unspecified immediate action to reduce crime.
“It’s not going to be an overnight homerun,” he said. “We’re not going to come out of here with all the solutions.”
There have been 43 reported killings in Puerto Rico in the first few weeks of the year, compared with 65 during the same period in 2018.
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But officials say they worry that an increasing number of crimes are being committed during the day and in busy public areas. The most recent one occurred two weeks ago in the popular tourist area of Isla Verde, where a shootout was captured on video at around 9 a.m. on Sunday near a hotel and one of the island’s busiest highways, leaving one man dead and another injured.
“Citizens don’t feel safe,” Douglas Leff, FBI special agent in charge of the San Juan division, told The Associated Press, before heading to a work group that was closed to the press. He said his office has requested more federal funds and more agents, adding that ideally he needs 10 to 15 percent more staff than what’s available.
Leff said he also worries about the effect the U.S. government shutdown will have on Puerto Rico’s crime if it continues: “We may have a serious problem.”
Puerto Rico Rep. Jose Melendez told the AP that another concern is that Puerto Rico is losing police officers amid a 12-year recession. He said 1,200 of them left last year alone, many seeking better pay and benefits in the U.S. mainland. Melendez also worried about criminals shooting people during the day even in crowded areas.
“They no longer respect daylight hours,” he said. “Now they do it anywhere, any time.”
After officials emerged from the work groups, they said suggestions included helping former inmates find housing, providing police with more training and equipment, and fixing streetlights in high-crime areas that remain dark more than a year after Hurricane Maria.