By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (June 21, 2012)
WASHINGTON — Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno asked the federal government Thursday for help battling drug trafficking and violence on his island and accused the United States of favoring states over territories in the drug war.
“We feel that Washington has not understood how serious our situation is,” Fortuno, a Republican, told a House Homeland Security subcommittee. When asked if the federal government has ever given him responses to his previous pleas for help, he replied: “None whatsoever.”
As border security has increased at the northern and southwest borders of the United States, Fortuno said it has remained stagnant in the Caribbean, the gateway of nearly 30 percent of illegal drugs coming into the states. In 2011, 165,000 tons of drugs were seized from the region, a 36 percent rise over four years, said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who led the hearing.
With the escalation in drug trafficking has come a spike in violence: There is one murder on the islands every 7.5 hours, and half of them are linked to drug trafficking, McCaul said.
Addressing Puerto Rico’s “blatant and unbridled” violence, Fortuno said he has a “moral commitment” to ensure his constituents feel safe in their own homes. But today, he said, no one does.
“Enough is enough,” he said.
And the region’s criminal networks have the potential to carry more than just illegal drugs. McCaul said terrorists could easily exploit America’s largely unguarded “back door” by carrying in weapons of mass destruction.
Compared with the nation’s southwest and northern borders, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been mostly ignored by the federal government, Fortuno said. There’s no kind of comprehensive federal strategy, like the ones employed at the country’s other borders, to fight drug crime in the Caribbean, he said.
“Puerto Ricans have fought and died for this country in many wars,” Fortuno testified, adding that he expects federal officials to help their “fellow Americans” in Puerto Rico.
“We don’t distinguish the value of one life over another due to geography,” Fortuno said.
Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., said that Miami receives significantly more federal resources than Puerto Rico, although the island has a much greater drug problem. But Coast Guard Rear Adm. William D. Lee told the committee that the discrepancy was due in part to resources dedicated to Florida’s other problems, including the huge influx of illegal immigrants.
At the hearing, Fortuno also addressed a report out this week from the American Civil Liberties Union that detailed extensive civil and human rights abuses within the Puerto Rico Police Department. Fortuno spoke about his many recent efforts to reform the department, but he also said the island has limited resources.
“We cannot fight this war alone, nor should we be required to do so,” Fortuno said.
Fortuno also asked that the federal government design a comprehensive federal strategy against the region’s drug crime. This would include filling the huge number of vacancies in Puerto Rican federal law enforcement agencies – for instance, 39 percent are currently vacant in Puerto Rico’s contingent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, he said – and increasing or reallocating resources to combat the issue.
Pedro R. Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, said the island is facing a crisis where there is no room for partisan politics.
“We know these are fiscally tough times, but this is a matter of prioritizing,” he said. “We have not seen a significant increase in federal resources in Puerto Rico, and it’s about time we have it.”