By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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"There was a fight here at the bar," explains Ricardo Haddock, a second lieutenant. "A group left and came back to get their revenge."
He adds with a sigh: "Up until last night, we had three less murders compared to this time last year. Now we have one murder more."
Julio Ramos Oliver's January killing made grisly headlines as far away as Canada. Puerto Rico was already reeling from a string of sensational slayings and battered by 14 percent unemployment; the last thing the commonwealth needed was to scare off tourists. Suddenly, the island's slogan, "Puerto Rico does it better," seemed less an invitation than an assassin's snarl.
"People here are fearful," Pesquera says. "It's because there is indiscriminate shooting in public areas between [drug gangs], and innocent bystanders get hit."
But even that statement oversimplifies things. Recent murders such as the SanSe killing have terrified residents precisely because of their senselessness. "You cannot honk the horn of your vehicle because the person might shoot you," says Sujeylee Ramos, Julio's older sister. "It's out of control."
A deeper look at the past year's most brutal crimes — and the stories of those affected by the bloodshed — illustrates even better than eye-popping stats why educated Puerto Ricans are fleeing to Miami, New York, and Texas like never before. Nearly 5 million Puerto Ricans now live in the mainland U.S., compared with just 3.6 million on the island. As the commonwealth shrinks by 15,000 people a year, Florida's Puerto Rican population grows by 7,300 annually. Texas, a state with no prior history of immigration from the island, now welcomes nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans a year. They're driven by a lack of jobs, but also by the carnage.
"Last year there were 180 less murders than in 2011, but they were probably even more brutal and shocking," says Luis Romero, the founder of anti-violence group Basta Ya! Romero should know: His son was stabbed to death in 2011 while walking with his girlfriend. But recent murders have been so "ghastly," Romero says, Puerto Rico is suffering from island-wide posttraumatic stress disorder.
The string of shocking killings began two months before the SanSe festival, with the death of Hector Camacho, the boxer who had garnered worldwide fame by winning 79 fights (and losing just six) with a flamboyant style. Camacho and a friend were fatally shot as they sat in a car outside a bar in his hometown, Bayamón. Police found ten packets of cocaine in the car, one of them open. The boxer had been shot in the face.
Two weeks later, an even more bizarre case exploded on late-night television. On November 29, a well-known publicist named José Enrique Gómez Saladín went missing. Soon, footage emerged showing Gómez being forced to take out $500 from an ATM. Four days later, he was found burned and beaten to death with lead pipes.
The day that police announced they had arrested four suspects for kidnapping Gómez in a seedy neighborhood, a popular TV show called SuperXclusivo aired a segment about the killing. The show's main character, a puppet named La Comay (slang for godmother), stunned viewers by suggesting Gómez got what he deserved. "I ask myself if this killing was not involved in sex, drugs, homosexuality, and prostitution," La Comay said. "Did he get what he was looking for?"
A boycott forced the program off the air weeks later, but the damage had been done. The La Comay scandal seemed to expose a newfound heartlessness, as if boricuas had become numb to the violence.
Then came the SanSe murder. Sujeylee Ramos was there that night beneath the totem pole but left shortly before her brother was shot. Her teenage niece tried to revive Julio when cops failed to do anything.
"What really bothers me is that it happened right in front of the police," she says. "There was a mobile police station less than 50 feet away. They saw the argument and they never did anything... They didn't even chase the shooters."
The bloody tide continued to rise. On January 23, 24-year-old Steven Cruzado López was shot in the back on a basketball court in San Germán after another player took offense to a foul. Less than a week later, a man and his wife were killed hours after abandoning the island's witness protection program.
None of that compared to the carnage of February 1. Seven relatives were crossing the street near their housing project in San Juan when a stolen car careened into them. The collision killed six, including a grandmother, her granddaughter, and four great-grandchildren.
That crime illustrates another regular challenge for police: The driver, 21-year-old Jonathan Soto Bonilla — nicknamed "787" for the Puerto Rican area code tattooed on his neck and already a suspect in a drug-related double murder — fled the scene on foot before catching a flight hours later to New York City.
Soto is far from the first fugitive to flee to the mainland. In 2011, another 21-year-old drug dealer named Luis Valdez Meléndez fled to New York after shooting a rival nine times in the head and spraying a crowd with bullets. The reverse is also common. In the summer of 2009, nine people were killed in drug skirmishes in Buffalo, New York. When authorities cracked down on gangs, many members fled to Puerto Rico. Last year, a New Jersey marijuana trafficker named Felipe Cantres-Sanjurjo, wanted for two murders, was caught in Puerto Rico. And this January, officials in Camden, New Jersey, charged 36 members of a heroin ring linked to the Ñetas, a powerful gang operating inside Puerto Rico's prisons.