Anti-crime effort in Puerto Rico is paying off, officials say
SAN JUAN (Reuters) - An anti-crime initiative that put more federal agents in Puerto Rico and boosted coordination with the U.S. mainland is making streets safer in both places, top U.S. and Puerto Rican law enforcement officials said on Thursday.
The effort, Operation Caribbean Resilience, began in July 2012 and has been expanded over the last three months in the U.S. territory.
Over the last 12 months, the operation has resulted in the arrest of more than 320 people and the seizure of more than 170 firearms, 8,000 rounds of ammunition, more than $155,000 in cash, and a wide range of drugs including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, Percocet, and oxycodone.
"Through our joint efforts ... we have not only made the streets of Puerto Rico much safer, but also improved security in the mainland United States," said John Sandweg, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Sandweg said the operation was entering a new phase targeting drug gangs and criminal organizations responsible for violent crime in Puerto Rico.
The island's non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, hailed the operation as a success.
"Now, it is critical that we sustain and build upon the gains we have made," said Pierluisi.
The federal government is primarily responsible for securing Puerto Rico's maritime border, and plays a key role in disrupting criminal activity on the Caribbean island, he said.
Puerto Rico had a record 1,117 killings during 2011. The tally dropped to 978 killings in 2012, according to the Puerto Rico Police Department. So far this year, 648 killings were registered through September 25, compared with 719 during the same period last year.
The crime problem, along with a seven-year economic slide, is driving many Puerto Ricans to the continental United States. More Puerto Ricans live stateside than on the island.
Puerto Rico's population has been on the decline for the past several years, with U.S. Census Bureau estimating it at 3.68 million in 2012, down from 3.81 million in 2000.
The operation is a joint initiative led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations unit, with support from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Puerto Rico Police Department and the municipal police departments of San Juan, Ponce, and Toa Alta.
Some 30 additional Homeland Security Investigations agents were assigned to high-crime areas with links to transnational crime. The Coast Guard boosted patrols of smuggling routes around Puerto Rico. Transportation Security Administration officials increased screening efforts to intercept drugs and weapons smuggled in baggage and cargo at airports and seaports.
(Reporting by Reuters in San Juan, Editing by Jane Sutton and Mohammad Zargham)