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As Puerto Rico’s Murder Rate Rises, One Death Highlights Anti-Crime Issue

January 1, 1994

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Residents on this Caribbean island are still hearing the echo of a shot fired Dec. 26, when 4-year-old Eddie Ahmed Padilla killed his 2-year-old brother with a .25 caliber pistol.

The boys had been left unattended in their mother’s car while she bought groceries at a local market.

Eddie found the unregistered gun in the glove compartment. He told police he thought the gun was ″a Christmas gift from Dad.″

The death of Raul Omar Padilla has led to wide discussion of Gov. Pedro Rossello’s fight against crime. Some say it targets mostly poor people while placing important issues, like gun control, on the back burner.

Others applaud the governor for bringing order to chaotic neighborhoods, but urge tougher measures.

Rossello, inaugurated two years ago, promised to curtail crime by concentrating on stopping the battle for control of choice drug-selling sites in public housing projects.

Seeking to lower a murder rate higher than all 50 states and to halt the drug-peddling, he ordered out National Guard in June - the first time U.S. military units were pressed into regular crime-fighting with police.

Hundreds of guardsmen and police have taken over 29 public housing projects since then in raids complete with helicopters and armored personnel carriers. They detained 148 residents on charges of drug-related crimes or illegal possession of weapons.

Some see the almost weekly operations as an elitist exercise because the targets - Puerto Rico’s 332 housing projects - are home to 332,000, or less than 10 percent, of the island’s 3.8 million people. Yet, many poor people caught in the crossfire between drug dealers say they feel safer.

The island’s 1993 murder rate as of Dec. 30 was a record 946, surpassing 1992′s record 864 and double the 1989 rate. Police say 65 percent of all 1993 murders were drug-related.

Seventeen of every 100,000 Puerto Ricans are murder victims, compared to 9.4 per 100,000 on the U.S. mainland, according to the latest FBI statistics.

The thrust of Puerto Rico’s crackdown on crime will continue to be housing project takeovers, Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo said.

A group of housing project residents have sued the police and National Guard, claiming the raids discriminate against them.

But the island’s Justice Department has refused to review the plan. Civil rights attorney Judith Berkan said the department is guilty of an ″alarming, dangerous, and anti-democratic″ attitude.

Lester Santiago of the Puerto Rican Civil Rights Institute said officers conducted searches without warrants and made illegal seizures, something he says is unthinkable in wealthier areas.

Some critics say the government should send police and guardsmen into affluent zones to stop the flow of drug-selling centers there. Neighborhoods have fenced in whole city blocks and placed guard shacks at the entrances.

In an effort to win public support, government and police officials have been debating gun control and other anti-crime proposals, including capital punishment, military-type camps for young offenders, house arrests, and no guarantee of bail for repeat offenders.

Toledo says gun control should be a priority.

He blames the high murder rate on the increasing availability of powerful weapons, saying indiscriminate firing to erase a drug rival may kill several people.

The governor has set a referendum for November 1994 to consider a constitutional amendment limiting bail rights of repeat offenders. Toledo wants school authorities recruited into the anti-crime initiative and recommends revoking all professional licenses of drug offenders.

Police want the issue of capital punishment added to the referendum.

Update hourly