Puerto Rico's population is declining. Faced with a deteriorating economy, increased poverty and a swelling crime rate, many Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island for the U.S. mainland. In a four-part series, Morning Edition explores this phenomenon, and how Puerto Rico's troubles are affecting its people and other Americans in unexpected ways.
Daysi Pena was selling cosmetics and accessories at the Rio Piedras market in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when she spotted two men getting out of a car. They ran into the jewelry store across from her stall, ran out again and began firing guns.
The incident was the last straw for Pena, who had worked at the market for 12 years.
"I'm moving to the United States with my daughter," she said, referring to the mainland.
Puerto Rico's per capita murder rate is six times that of the U.S. as a whole. And with violence escalating, many residents are considering joining the thousands of others who have already fled the island for brighter and safer opportunities.
The island's police superintendent, Hector Pesquera, says tackling the crime problem has been a challenge. Before he ran the police force, which is responsible for the entire island of more than 3.5 million people, Pesquera spent years leading the FBI bureau in Miami.
The picture wasn't pretty when he returned to Puerto Rico. He came home to a fleet of police cars in despair, aging equipment and officers arrested for corruption. Drug cartels, he says, were also moving their businesses to the island from Mexico.
"Plus, unfortunately, we broke the all-time record for murders [in 2011]," he says. "We had 1,136, I believe."
It's a record that Pesquera and his team are trying to combat.
"We had 186, 187 less murders, so we're slowly making a dent," he says.
Pesquera says political muscle is needed to make the case to Washington, D.C., that solving the drug and crime problems here will help people on the mainland.
In many ways, Puerto Rico is America's third border, Pesquera says. Drugs that enter from Latin America can head right to the mainland without going through customs. According to Pesquera, 80 percent of the drugs that come through the island end up in cities and communities on the East Coast.
"Help us. Because if you help us, we're going to help the United States," he says. "Is it that hard?"
Puerto Rico's resident commissioner, or nonvoting member of Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, says the Department of Homeland Security will soon begin an intensive effort to curb drug violence. DHS would only confirm that it has expanded anti-drug operations in Puerto Rico and continues to deploy personnel there.
But police superintendent Pesquera says he's still not convinced that people on the mainland are paying enough attention to how dire the circumstances are in Puerto Rico.
"Out of sight, out of mind," he says. "I was watching the national news and they were highlighting Oakland [Calif.] and the major crime wave there — 114 murders. We blow that in a month here. You see any uproar? Nothing."
Pesquera says he knows the island will get the help it needs at some point. "It's just when," he says. "When's the breaking point?"
Beating The Culture Of Crime
In an area called Old San Juan — a touristy spot in the capital — cobblestone streets and trendy cafes paint a paradise that's described in all the tour books. But Luis Romero says there's more to the scene than visitors may notice.
"Below the obvious, incredible beauty lies a very sad situation of high crime," says Romero, who was born in the neighborhood.
Romero was pulled into the war on crime when his son was killed almost two years ago on his son's birthday. After a night of celebration, his son was on a walk with his girlfriend in a well-lit area when a 14-year-old stole his cellphone.
"He gives the iPhone, gives the money, but the guy decides to attack his girlfriend and stabs her twice. My son jumps in to defend her, and he died a hero. He got knifed three times. The kid is serving now 30 years in jail," Romero says. "My son is dead."
Romero started an anti-crime organization called Basta Ya ("that's enough" in Spanish). He says his son, who was a criminal justice student, advocated for unity and an end to the culture of crime.
Violent crime and drugs have long been issues on the island, but many Puerto Ricans say they used to feel safe as long as they weren't involved in the drug war. Now, crime feels more widespread, Romero says, affecting the poor and rich alike.
"This is no way to live, that you have to be looking to the right and looking to the left to make sure that nothing is going to happen to you," he says. "You are sitting at home and you hear the 'ratt-tatt-tatt-tatt-tatt' of the machine guns going on. Why do we have to live through that?"
Romero, who has family who have already left, says he used to have conversations with his son about whether they too should leave.
"Sometimes, as a father, I feel torn," he says. "If I had moved, he wouldn't have been killed. Maybe or maybe not."
When asked what he wants people on the U.S. mainland to know about Puerto Rico, Romero says, "Well, the people of Puerto Rico are very warm, very welcoming. You can enjoy Puerto Rico, the natural beauty, the opportunities.
"But as fellow American citizens," he says, "don't give up on us. We may need some help now, but don't give up on us."