Bloody Tide: How Puerto Rico Affects the U.S. – Crime, murder, drugs in Puerto Rico

Bloody Tide: How Puerto Rico Affects the U.S.

Bloody Tide: How Puerto Rico Affects the U.S.

Julio Ramos Oliver died over a spilled drink.

It was just after midnight January 20, and Old San Juan shook with the fiesta de San Sebastián. Under the golden glow of street lamps, more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans packed onto the narrow cobblestone calles for the year’s biggest party.

Dressed in a baggy yellow shirt and black hat, Ramos had met family members and friends hours earlier underneath a 40-foot totem pole overlooking the churning Caribbean Sea. Reggaeton refracted off the colonial architecture, and drunken revelers and empty beer cans littered the plaza.

At 12:52 a.m., Ramos, a 32-year-old fisherman, headed down a packed side street. As he raised a beer can to his lips, he clattered into the back of the man in front of him. The man spun around, his white jersey dripping with beer. Ramos apologized, but it was too late. The man raised his shirt to reveal a pistol. “We’re prepared,” he said. Ramos reportedly removed a knife from his pocket and answered, “So am I.”

As the two men stared each other down, a third figure emerged from the crowd behind Ramos. A gun muzzle flashed. The fisherman fell to the ground, blood spurting from his throat onto the cobblestones. The gunmen fled, but not before blasting two more rounds into the dying man.

Ramos’s killing was just one in a relentless wave of murders in Puerto Rico over the past three years. In 2011, the tiny island’s record 1,136 killings put it on par with civil-war zones such as the Congo and Sudan in terms of murders per capita. Last year was little better. And in the past four months, a series of particularly horrific slayings has terrorized the tropical paradise. First, boricua boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho was mysteriously gunned down in November. Two weeks later, a well-known publicist was kidnapped, set on fire and beaten to death. And just last month, a gangster ran his car over an entire family, killing six.

Ramos’s death in the heart of the city during the crowded SanSe fiesta was the most brazen and symbolic slaying yet. It signaled to the world what Puerto Ricans have known for several years: The “Isle of Enchantment” has become bewitched by violence. A crackdown on drugs coming across the Mexican border has only pushed contraband through the Caribbean, transforming the American commonwealth into the newest nexus for narcotraffickers.

“If this were anywhere else in the States, it would have created a national security crisis by now,” Puerto Rico’s police chief, Hector Pesquera, says of the sky-high murder rate, roughly seven times the national average. “But we are out of sight and out of mind.”

When Luis “Jerry” Roque, a cook at Houston’s Tex-Chick Puerto Rican restaurant, hears these stories, he simply nods, tossing his eyes to the side and affirming that, , it’s that bad. He notes that these murders — these street deaths, as he calls them — are something everyone on Puerto Rico, whose population is just over half the size of greater Houston, knows about.

Camacho’s shooting stunned the island. Ramos’s death brought things to a point. Packed pistols on basketball courts, stray-fly bullets missing their targets and hitting those unintended. These “streets deaths” have pushed the wealthy into gated communities and forced many of the rest behind windows barred in reinforced iron.

“It’s getting worse,” Roque says, with his boss, Angel Lajara, aiding in translation. “The drugs are there — everything’s there.” Lajara jumps in: “If you want to find problems there, you can. Get some alcohol in you, and you can find whatever trouble you want.”

Roque, who arrived as one of Texas’s 30,000-strong Puerto Ricans only four months ago, who began working as a cook at Houston’s 33-year-old Tex-Chick just two months after he arrived, chooses his words. He’s normally amiable, normally boisterous, but his voice drops when these murders come up.

He says he hasn’t seen anything firsthand. He says there’s been nothing on his doorstep, nothing in his cocina in his home in Caguas, 30 minutes south of San Juan. But his friends — he won’t talk about what his friends do, and have done. “There are maybe nine, ten gangs in my home,” Roque said, trailing off, hesitant to say more.

He says that his life in Texas is “far more calm, more tranquil” than what he knew in Puerto Rico. Caguas is a midsize town, and Roque had a steady job at a local cafeteria. But he couldn’t stay. “I didn’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

To be sure, an economic component has played a large role in the swelling Puerto Rican ranks in Texas — which has suddenly become the third-largest destination in the country for educated puertorriqueños, following Florida and New York. “After last November’s election, the new government eliminated 30,000 jobs in the government industry — engineers, doctors, nurses,” says Rosa De Jesus, the secretary of the Sociedad de Puertorriqueños en Houston. “A lot of people lost their houses because of this. A lot of people have had both husband and wife lose their jobs.”

And so the cycle loops back upon itself. Economic hardship begets drug-running, which begets violence, which begets a murder rate normally reserved for postcolonial power struggles.

Yet Americans who ignore the island do so at their own peril. As Puerto Rican politicians make an unprecedented push to become the 51st state, the commonwealth has become more central than ever to the United States’s drug and crime problems. Pesquera estimates that 80 percent of the narcotics entering Puerto Rico end up in East Coast cities, particularly Miami and New York. Guns and money move in the opposite direction, and fugitives flow freely back and forth, frustrating officials. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are pouring into Florida, New York and Texas to escape the gunfire gripping their homeland.

Pesquera’s police force is outgunned and overmatched. To make matters worse, rampant corruption and civil-rights violations dog the department, which, at 17,000 employees, is the second-largest in the nation. Whether because of these doubts or the spiraling national debt, the feds have been reluctant to help. Something has to give.

“This is the United States of America, whether people like it or not,” Pesquera says. “We are the country’s third border. If we don’t protect it, you guys are fucked.”

By 10 a.m., the blood had already disappeared from Calle Saint Just. It wasn’t cleaned up, like the scores of AK-47 cartridges that were scattered across the intersection like rice after a wedding. Instead, the blood was simply gone — returned to the Puerto Rican earth.

“The trucks roll by and spread it all over the place,” says Officer Angel Martinez, a gruff, blue-eyed homicide detective.

Like most murders here, the blood belongs to gangsters who have gunned each other down, Martinez says. Around 9 p.m., drug dealers in a black SUV ambushed their rivals on this industrial stretch of east San Juan. Three men fled into a funeral home parking lot — a fitting place to die. The ambushers cornered them and mowed them down with assault rifles. One man survived; the others bled out on the dirty pavement. In the hours after those deaths, five other people were killed around San Juan.

Martinez has no choice but to shrug off such horrors. Grisly scenes are as regular as morning cafecito for Puerto Rican cops, who have the unenviable task of bringing order to San Juan’s streets. As murders have doubled since the late ’90s, the cops have found themselves overwhelmed by drug traffickers, marooned by an indifferent federal government and undercut by corruption.

At the head of that effort is Pesquera, a 66-year-old with a white beard, glasses and a sailor’s mouth. “Every morning, I look at the stats and ask myself: ‘What could we have done to prevent this?'” he says during an interview in his corner office. In these particular cases, not much, he concludes. “But guess who is blamed?”

Before Pesquera can save the island from chaos, he must first fix an antiquated police force infamous for graft and brutality.

“There have been scandals about police corruption and cops killing civilians in the streets for years in Puerto Rico,” says Bruce Bagley, an expert on organized crime in Latin America and professor at the University of Miami.

This isn’t the first time waves of violence have broken over Puerto Rico. Perched at the strategic entrance to the Caribbean, the Connecticut-size island has a long and bloody history. Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León slaughtered Taíno natives beginning in 1508. Over the centuries, slave uprisings and independence movements were put down with deadly force. By 1898, the colony had won a degree of autonomy, only for the Spanish-American War to transfer control to the United States.

When Puerto Rican politicians voted for independence in 1914, the United States responded by granting boricuas (anyone living on the island) U.S. citizenship — just in time to be drafted for World War I. Another 30 years passed before Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own governor.

Under U.S. rule, the island became a popular vacation spot. But by the 1980s, with Colombian cocaine flowing through Puerto Rico to south Florida, violence became endemic. Murders decreased in the 1990s as drug routes shifted to Central America and Mexico, but in 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared an assault on cartels. Two years later, the United States launched its own $1.6 billion Merida Initiative to combat gangs.

“That is why in the past three years, Puerto Rico has become increasingly visible in regard to drug scandals,” Bagley says. “This is an unintended consequence of the pressure being brought in Mexico and Central America.”

Today drugs from Haiti, Colombia, Vene­zuela and the Dominican Republic stream in on Jet Skis and go-fast boats. “Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, illegal contraband that makes it to the island is unlikely to be subjected to further U.S. Customs inspections,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, head of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said during a hearing last year.

In an e-mail to the Houston Press, McCaul reaffirmed his stance. “In order for our nation to be secure, a comprehensive security strategy that takes into account all of our borders — including the Puerto Rican border — must be implemented,” he wrote. “[I]t is clear that more needs to be done.”

Pesquera, who’d been appointed chief a few months before that hearing, listened quietly in the audience as then-Governor Luis Fortuño accused the feds of having “no strategy.” Puerto Rican by birth, Pesquera spent 27 years working for the FBI, running the agency’s Miami office from 1998 until his retirement in 2003 and overseeing infamous cases including the “Cuban Five” spy ring and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Last March, at Fortuño’s request, he took a leave of absence from his job as head of security at the Port of Miami to try to save his homeland.

Today he looks exhausted. Pesquera lives close to his office but is — by law — watched over night and day by heavily armed guards. (“I do go out sometimes without them knowing,” he says with a smirk.) He is ferried to work in a brand-new, gleaming black SUV with lead in the doors. The windows in his corner office are bulletproof.

Amid the violence and paranoia, Pesquera has instituted practical reforms: updating aging equipment, improving training, and winning public support by sacking bad cops. And there have been small improvements. In 2012, murders fell to just fewer than 1,000 from their peak the year before, thanks to an odd arrangement with federal prosecutors. (The first two months of 2013 saw 148 new corpses on the island — a shocking total but slightly below the number during the same period last year.)

Unlike laws anywhere else in America, Puerto Rican law allows anyone — even accused murderers — to bond out of jail. Drug dealers often spring out, skip court, disappear and keep on killing. “We’ve had guys wearing [electronic] ankle bracelets murdering people,” Pesquera says. In the past year, however, the Department of Justice has increasingly used federal gun charges, which prohibit bond, to keep criminals off the street. “We’re sending two flights a week to the U.S. because we can’t hold them all.”

Still, the bloody tide has barely receded. “In reality, all of San Juan is hot,” Angel Martinez confesses as he cruises away from the funeral-home shooting toward the next crime scene: a triple homicide in the town of Canovanas, ten minutes east of the capital.

Gunmen fired more than a hundred AK-47 rounds here last night, and a handful still lie scattered around the crime scene. Water in a nearby drainage ditch is cloudy with blood.

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.”

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 United States, 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 little 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 fewer murders than in 2011, but they were probably even more brutal and shocking,” says Luis Romero, the founder of anti­violence 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, that Puerto Rico is suffering from island-wide post-traumatic 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.

On November 29, a well-known publicist named José Enrique Gómez Saladín went missing. Soon video 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 “The 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, Julio’s older sister, 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.

The bloody tide continued. 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 at 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. 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.

“These guys will go from Puerto Rico to New York because something happens in Puerto Rico and they have got to run,” says a recently retired NYC gang investigator, who asked that his name not be used. “Other guys come here because of the drug trade or because they are no longer in good graces with their gang [on the island]…It’s definitely a strong network.”

Few of Puerto Rico’s recent grisly murders have been solved. In some, such as Camacho’s killing, cops don’t even have suspects. And even if they make arrests, witnesses are often too afraid to testify.

Wanda Figueroa left work just in time to see her two sons get shot.

It was a muggy afternoon in Manatí, a city of strip malls surrounded by jagged green hills to the west of San Juan. Figueroa had walked out of the Taco Maker, where she worked, and into the parking lot to meet her 22-year-old daughter and her younger son, Saul, but she found him in a shouting match with a stranger holding a club.

She watched in horror as the man struck her 19-year-old over the head, sending him crashing to the pavement. Her older son, Adrian, stormed out of the restaurant and grabbed the man’s weapon. Then the man pulled out a gun. He sprayed Adrian four times in the chest, shoulder and foot and then turned, sinking two fatal shots into Saul’s stomach. Finally he pointed the gun at Figueroa and pulled the trigger. Click. It was out of ammunition.

It wasn’t a robber or a drug dealer tearing apart Figueroa’s family on April 27, though. The barrel she was staring down was government-issued. Her son’s killer was a cop.

That double shooting is one of hundreds of cases of alleged brutality by the Puerto Rico Police Department, which was slammed in a 2011 DOJ report that cites “the staggering level of crime and corruption involving PRPD officers,” including drug dealing, gun running and murder. A 2012 ACLU probe, meanwhile, determined that PRPD is “a dysfunctional and recalcitrant police department that has run amok for years. Use of excessive or lethal force is routine, and civil and human rights violations are rampant.”

Pesquera disputes those findings — “I don’t care about all that special-agenda crap,” he says — but to critics, Figueroa’s story shows why many Puerto Ricans fear cops more than they do thugs.

“Police here are like an enormous octopus with its tentacles in everything,” Figueroa says. “They do whatever they want.”

A tiny woman with bleached-blond hair, Figueroa has worked at the Taco Maker for 23 years, rising to manager and raising her three kids by herself, taking them to work with her.

The day of the shooting, Figueroa and Adrian, then 20, had been working at the restaurant. Her daughter, Zuleyka Perez, and son Saul had been visiting Saul’s sick five-month-old in the hospital. They arrived in separate cars, bearing the same good news: The infant was recovering from a bacterial infection.

The trouble began, everyone agrees, when Zuleyka parked her car in the Taco Maker lot and found Officer Alfredo Delgado Molina behind her on his motorcycle. “You ran the light,” he told her. Saul quickly walked over, and Figueroa came outside.

That’s when the facts get murky. Figueroa and her daughter say Delgado snapped at Figueroa: “If you’re not a judge or a lawyer, you need to get the fuck back inside!” When Saul demanded that Delgado stop yelling at his mother, the cop struck Saul and then — as Adrian ran out to help — pulled his gun and began shooting.

“We aren’t bad people,” Figueroa says with a sob, standing in the spot outside Taco Maker where she watched Saul die. “We all work in the same place, stay out of trouble. I raised all three kids by myself as best as I could. They aren’t criminals. And then they take them away like this? It’s difficult.”

The police disputed that story. Delgado, who couldn’t be reached for comment, said in a statement that the brothers had hit the officer in the face and knocked out a tooth. (“It was either his life or theirs,” his supervisor added.) Cops also claimed to have found a metal pipe at the scene used to beat Delgado.

Pesquera adamantly defends his officer, who was cleared by the force’s Special Investigations Department. “These two guys came out and hit the officer,” the chief says. “He defended himself.”

In fact, Pesquera says he wants his cops to act just like Delgado. “If you challenge a police officer and you bring a weapon, expect to be shot at.”

Figueroa’s struggle didn’t end with Saul’s death or Adrian’s long recovery, though. Incredibly, both mother and son were slapped with five criminal counts ranging from assault to obstruction of justice. Under a law signed by Fortuño, they both face 99 years in jail because the alleged crimes resulted in a death — namely, Saul’s.

“They are blaming us for my own son’s death,” Figueroa says in disbelief, raising her pant leg to reveal an electronic monitoring bracelet.

Whomever’s story you believe, there’s no question that cases such as the Figueroas’s exacerbate Pesquera’s challenge. Consider the DOJ’s 2011 findings, including that trigger-happy cops often unload rounds without reason, “unnecessarily injur[ing] hundreds of people and kill[ing] numerous others,” usually in poor areas.

As if that accusation weren’t bad enough, many Puerto Rican cops are straight-up criminals. Between 2005 and 2010, more than 1,700 PRPD officers were arrested on charges ranging from theft and assault to drug trafficking and murder. The FBI arrested 61 islander cops in one swoop in 2010, accusing them of protecting drug traffickers. Officers killed 21 people in 2010 and 2011, including the recent fatal shooting of an unarmed 14-year-old. “The PRPD is using excessive force as a substitute for community policing,” the ACLU report concluded.

Pesquera counters that he’s already fired more cops in ten months than his predecessors did in four years. When he discovered there were 4,000 pending internal investigations, plus another 7,000 awaiting adjudication from the legal department, he made them a priority. “We are down to 700 that still need to be investigated,” he says.

But Pesquera’s own record isn’t spotless. In 2003, Miami New Times reported on a DOJ investigation into his close friendship with convicted Cuban felon Camilo Padreda, a pre-Castro policeman who specialized in bribing city officials. Pesquera let him hang around the FBI offices so much that employees eventually reported their concerns to outside agencies. One cop recounted seeing Pesquera accept a gold watch from the crook.

Pesquera brushes aside the decade-old accusation. And when it comes to reforming Puerto Rico’s shambolic police force, he is blunt. Some degree of corruption is inevitable in a place where drug money is rampant and cops’ salaries are minuscule (the median was $31,000 a year in 2011). But he denies that brutality and crime are deeply rooted.

“Like any institution, there are going to be guys who beat people,” he says with a shrug. “It’s not the institution’s fault unless you don’t do anything about it.”

Four hundred feet from the spot where Ramos died over a spilled drink, a steep cliff drops precipitously into the sea. Wedged between the cliff and the Caribbean lies La Perla, a slum infamous as a redoubt for drug traffickers and a tourist mecca for marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

“They have sophisticated radio equipment so they can listen in on us and signal blockers keeping us from spying on them,” says Juan Nieves, a veteran cop with salt-and-pepper hair, as he peers down into the dark, densely built barrio from his cruiser on the higher ground of Old San Juan.

La Perla — where police are powerless and the drug trade paramount — is a microcosm of Puerto Rico, which is sure to see ever more drugs and violence as the States and Mexico clamp down harder on their shared border. And though 80 percent of the island’s murders are drug-related, Pesquera’s requests for federal aid have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, the sequestration cuts hitting the Coast Guard and Customs mean he’s likely to receive less help than ever this year.

“We are not going to arrest our way out of our murder problem,” Pesquera says. “We need help fighting the flow of drugs. That’s what’s killing us.”

Sitting in an unmarked Chevy Caprice in the shadows overlooking La Perla, Nieves and his partner, Osvaldo Merced, point out a drug deal under way.

“Check out these two guys. They are looking to score,” says Merced, a young cop with a buzz cut and superhero-size shoulders. Two teenagers in black rock-and-roll T-shirts approach a stone staircase plunging toward the ocean. An old man perched next to the stairs says something lost in the surf. “That’s the lookout,” Merced says.

The teens disappear down the staircase and then emerge a few minutes later. The one in a Rolling Stones shirt drops something into the old man’s hand. The two then head toward one of San Juan’s most popular nightclubs.

Tonight Merced and Nieves aren’t making arrests, just showing a journalist how the city works. But in 2011, Puerto Rican police did conduct a rare raid of La Perla, arresting nearly 70 members of a drug ring, including its leader, Jorge “Truck Face” Gómez-González.

“You can tell where the bichotes (big shots) live because they have the fanciest homes,” says Merced, pointing to several three-story houses. “They have three, four Mercedeses and girlfriends with bodies sculpted by the best plastic surgeons in the world.”

“They are better than us,” adds Nieves, who is two days from completing 25 years on the force. “We arrested Truck Face, but someone else just took his place.”

For now, Pesquera is pleading for help, including at a recent meeting with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who pledged support. “I don’t think she was blowing smoke up my ass,” he says. Yet when the Coast Guard unveiled a fleet of 12 new cutters, they went to Miami and Key West — where drugs rarely arrive via the ocean these days — instead of Puerto Rico.

Truth is, there’s little willpower in DC to spend heavily on an island of 3.6 million people whose ballots don’t count. Perhaps that’s why Puerto Ricans are debating louder than ever their identity as a U.S. commonwealth. When boricuas went to the polls last November, 54 percent rejected the status quo. But the vote was split among those who favored independence, statehood or remaining a commonwealth. Fortuño — the governor who appointed Pesquera — was dumped out of office.

Pesquera isn’t sure whether he will remain police chief beyond the end of March, when he is scheduled to return to Miami. His department remains in flux: 17,000 cops with frayed uniforms, aging equipment, no computers and — if the fatal shooting of Saul Medina Figueroa is any indication — more than a few bad apples.

Figueroa recently received two years’ probation as punishment for witnessing a cop kill her son. Her other son, Adrian — who still has a bullet buried in his collarbone — accepted a deal of three years in prison to avoid a life behind bars.

On February 27, David Bonilla Fernández, wearing a white polo, spiky hair and an expression free of emotion, walked into San Juan’s central courthouse. Cops were waiting for him. Five days earlier, they had distributed photos of Bonilla and three others surrounding Ramos moments before his murder at the SanSe festival. Prosecutors had charged Bonilla in absentia, and the scrawny 24-year-old had arrived to turn himself in.

But there was no relief for Ramos’s family. Bonilla hasn’t confessed, and the video evidence against him is thin. Unless terrified witnesses can be persuaded to testify, a jury will likely let him off.

In fact, Bonilla could be strolling around free even earlier. Last November 4, Puerto Rican voters rejected an amendment that would have revoked the automatic right of accused criminals to bond out. So if Bonilla can come up with $120,000, he will walk.

Jerry Roque is singing. He’s standing in Tex-Chick’s charcoal kitchen, scratching out something by Shakira, with his hat askew and his earbuds draping like loose pearls near his lobes. He grins as he spins to the counter behind him — nimble for a man of his heft — crunching and crushing a trio of yellowed plantains into the most authentic Puerto Rican mofongo Houston knows.

“Oye mami, vuelvete loca!” He laughs, cupping the plantain mash, flipping it into its traditional circular cast. It’s a clear Saturday afternoon, and an autographed photo of Sonia Sotomayor stands above, and Roque, still smiling, parries the Spanish orders at Tex-Chick with another round of Shakira’s muerdeme-la-boca!

He seems at home here, twirling in the cocina and tossing another round of alcapurrias for those waiting. He seems perfectly fine with the pork and the pollo and the knowledge that he’s working at the finest Puerto Rican restaurant in the city.

But when you sit with Roque — before the morning shift, before the line curls to the benches outside — and you begin asking about the home he left four months ago in Puerto Rico, his eyes jump and his lilt goes soft. The man who’d been pattering through a Spanish-English chimera, speech speeding like a cigarette boat, turns short.

“The opportunities here in Houston are just much, much better than you know in Puerto Rico,” he says, Lajara translating. “And I miss the beaches — the beaches there are all year-round. But back home, there are problems. It’s ugly.”

Despite his scattered tattoos and facial scruff, he says again that the murders and the drugs and the muerte weren’t for him. His friends, maybe, but him — he couldn’t. Because he has a pair of daughters back home. Twins: Jerriares and Jerrieles. Sixteen months old. They’re in Caguas, learning their first words, taking their first steps, with Roque’s mother and father and ex-wife nearby.

They’re still there, with San Juan only 20 miles away. Drive a half hour from Roque’s home and you can find Ramos’s blood-washed pavement. Drive a few city blocks and you can see the cops waiting for a drug deal — for a swap to bust, or not, as they see fit. Step down the street, but leave the daughters in the house, because these drug runners and gang men — their bullets don’t discriminate between boricuas.

Roque talks about how he needs to bring his daughters here — for the money, for the safety. Tex-Chick may be a boricua restaurant, and there may be thousands of puertorriqueños swelling this city, but this isn’t Puerto Rico. To Roque, Houston is a haven.

But he knows he needs more funds to move from the apartment in north Houston and find a better place for his family, allowing them to join the Puerto Rican doctors and engineers and cocineros who have recently left their island home. He knows he has to improve his lot here before his daughters can find someplace safer. Because, as he says, the ones dying aren’t simply those on the wrong end of a spilled beer or a stolen pistol.

He’s here, and his daughters are there, alongside Pesquera, alongside the corruption, alongside the zero-sum world of the gangs and hits and the War on Drugs. Back in Puerto Rico. “And I will bring my daughters here. I…am worried. I am worried, because they kill innocents.” or

Roque moved to Houston from Puerto Rico four months ago and has been working at Tex-Chick since January. He said that Caguas, his hometown in Puerto Rico, has nearly a dozen gangs in the surrounding area.  Image 1 of 5
Roque moved to Houston from Puerto Rico four months ago and has been working at Tex-Chick since January. He said that Caguas, his hometown in Puerto Rico, has nearly a dozen gangs in the surrounding area.
Photo by Francisco Montes
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Don’t Lecture Greece on Welfare: Puerto Rico USA Is Much Worse

Don’t Lecture Greece on Welfare: Puerto Rico USA Is Much Worse

Puerto rico

Newport Beach, CA1271

With Greece defaulting on its debt, the press has been full of complaints that the lazy Greeks would like to live off of welfare and government handouts rather than work.

But Puerto Rico, USA also just defaulted on its debt and by most objective measures is much worse than the Greeks regarding work, welfare, and government handouts. Mainland Americans should learn from Puerto Rico’s example of how our own socialistic labor and tax policies can devastate an economy.

The common stereotype is to label the Greeks as lazy, because only 52 percent of the nation is currently working. But only 43 percent of Puerto Ricans,USA are employed. Greeks actually work the longest work week in Europe at 42 hours.

Critics snarl because 23 percent of Greeks are on welfare. But over 27 percent of the people in Puerto Rico,, USA are on welfare.

Greek politicians are seen as trying to buy votes by spending 29 percent of the nation’s GDP on government “transfer payments” for disability, housing, family, old age, unemployment and health. But transfer payments in Puerto Rico, USA amount to over 40 percent of GDP.

What is killing the Greek economy is being locked into the laws and currency of the European Union. What is killing the Puerto Rican economy is being locked into the laws and currency of the United States.

The territory is required by federal law to pay the USA minimum wage of $7.25, versus the Greek minimum wage of $4.42 an hour. Although the median income in Puerto Rico, USA is only half that of the poorest US state, Mississippi, welfare benefits are about the same in Puerto Rico as Mississippi.

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act subjected Puerto Rico, USA to a federal minimum wage, but it was not until 1983 that a 1974 act, which required that the Island match the mainland’s minimum wage, was fully phased in. The current Federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is 77 percent of Puerto Rico, USA’s current median wage of $9.42 an hour. By contrast, the US mainland’s minimum wage is only 43 percent of the U.S. median wage of almost $17 per hour. It would take an average minimum wage of $13 an hour to match that Puerto Rico proportion.

An unsupportably high minimum wage has meant that entry level jobs simply don’t exist in Puerto Rico, USA. Official unemployment is only 12 percent, but that is only because the labor force participation rate is about 43%, as opposed to 63% on the mainland. The Obama Administration’s demand for a $10.10 minimum wage would mean the minimum Puerto Rico SA wage would be higher than the current medium wage on the island. Obama made no provision to exempt Puerto Rico from the impacts of is proposal.

Perhaps to make up for this disastrous employment policy, welfare and entitlement payments are kept high. As a result, the incentive to give up public assistance in favor of a job has been substantially reduced for Puerto Rico, USA. Less than half of working age males are employed, 35 percent of the island’s residents are on food stamps, and 45.4 percent of Puerto Rico, USA is in poverty.

Puerto Rico’s problems were already building prior to the 2008 Financial Crisis. Ignoring the devastating effect of having to comply with the USA minimum wage laws, a new 7 percent sales tax was introduced by Puerto Rico USA in 2006. Based on the expectation of a spike in new sales tax revenues, the Puerto Rico USA government issued lots of new bonds. But the tax tended to inhibit consumer sales and drive more of the economy underground. Instead of the tax improving the island’s finances, the economy tanked and the debt burden grew.

Puerto Rico USA is actually worse off than its impoverished neighbor Cuba. Although Puerto Rico’s $103 billion annual GDP is twice the size of Cuba’s, Puerto Rico’s debt of $73 billion is now over three times larger than Cuba’s debt of $23.44 billion.

Contrary to media stereotypes, the USA consistently spends more on welfare than Canada, while Germany spends more than Greece, according to the Financial Times. A quick look at Puerto Rico USA demonstrates how destructive America’s socialistic labor and tax policies can be to a group of Americans.

Posted in culture and cycle of dependency, Puerto Rico > Venezuela > Socialism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Socialism killed Puerto Rico too, not just Greece

Socialism killed Puerto Rico too

Capitol building in San Juan

Getty Images
Capitol building in San Juan

I hope no one here in the U.S. is feeling too smug about the financial fiasco dragging on in Greece. Because we have a pretty similar problem on our own island called Puerto Rico and just like Greece, socialist/welfare state policies are the primary culprit.

Puerto Rico seems to have avoided the immediate threat of default for now by making $1.9 billion worth of debt payments that were due July 1st. But Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said his island’s troubled economy was in a “death spiral” earlier this week, and it’s hard to argue with the spirit of his comments. Just like Greece, Puerto Rico has become a tragic case of what happens to any municipality when there are just too many incentives not to work.

Read MoreWhy are we ignoring this colossal socialist failure?

Even though entitlement spending continues to soar out of control in America, the myth of the “welfare queen” is still thankfully a myth. Working for a low wage is still a better choice than going on public assistance in almost every possible scenario in the 50 states. But in Puerto Rico that’s not always the case. The low cost of living there is not factored in to food stamp and Social Security benefit payments coming from Washington. The same is true of the generous Pell Grant and federally backed student loan programs that go a lot farther to cover education costs in Puerto Rico. U.S. taxpayers are literally subsidizing options that discourage work on the island territory. And people there are simply doing the math.

And the math includes some eye-popping numbers and shocking policies that were exacerbated by the Great Recession. Social Security disability payments are just one example, but the SSA’s own internal reports showed that in 2010 nine of the top 10 zip codes for workers receiving disability benefits were on Puerto Rico. Applicants for disability payments were approved at a rate of 69% in 2010 compared to just 36% four years earlier. Things got even more ridiculous this spring when it was revealed that not being able to speak English was considered a legitimate disability on the island. Thankfully, only a handful of Puerto Rican citizens actually got payments based on that claim. But even before the Great Recession, The Economist bluntly labeled Puerto Rico as “Welfare Island.”

Businesses face a very challenging environment there as well. Puerto Rico imposes the same federal minimum wage as we have in the 50 states, making it much more costly to employ workers there than on its neighboring islands in the Caribbean. So not only is there a strong incentive not to work in Puerto Rico, there’s also a pretty good reason not to create jobs there as well.

But don’t demonize the Puerto Rican people because this is not unique to them. It’s really simple economics. If the government subsidizes an activity, that activity will increase and the people who benefit from those subsidies will likely become the fastest growing part of the population. Puerto Rico’s overall population has actually been decreasing over the past decade, but the island is mostly losing its younger, middle class, and more educated people while the poorer and older population stays put and grows.

And that’s where there is another stark similarity to the Greek situation that actually doesn’t have much to do with welfare. Even before massive taxpayer entitlements came ashore on Puerto Rico, the island’s labor participation rate was below 50% because it was easy for its hard working and ambitious residents to move and work legally to the United States where there was much more opportunity. That practice is simply increasing right now. Meanwhile, the European Union arrangement has also made it easier for the best skilled or hardest working Greeks to leave their country and legally find work in more prosperous regions of the E.U. It’s a simple case of “brain drain” on two hemispheres.

That’s why austerity measures and other policies like it won’t really help. Government entitlements should be cut gradually over time and fraud should be stamped out immediately, but what can Puerto Rico do to actually attract new wealth and keep its best human resources on shore? Starting in 2012, the government in San Juan passed new laws to lure millionaires that included no capital gains taxes and a 4% tax rate on their businesses if they make Puerto Rico their primary residence. Of course that leaves the shrinking number of middle class and working poor Puerto Ricans holding the bag on an increased personal tax burden. One would hope that would lead the government to at least consider cutting taxes for everyone, but that is probably wishful thinking.

And it’s also probably wishful thinking that American politicians from both parties will learn the important lessons Greece and Puerto Rico are providing our country with right now. If we don’t find a way to shrink entitlements and increase the incentives to work and create wealth, we’re headed for the same kind of pain.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of “Power Lunch.” Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.


Posted in culture and cycle of dependency, Puerto Rico economic crisis, Puerto Rico politics and government | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why are we ignoring this colossal socialist failure in Greece? Similarities to Puerto Rico

Why are we ignoring this colossal socialist failure?

Pro-Euro protestors attend a rally in front of the parliament building, in Athens, Greece, June 30, 2015.

Marko Djurica | Reuters
Pro-Euro protestors attend a rally in front of the parliament building, in Athens, Greece, June 30, 2015.

Flash back to 2008. Bear Stearns fails, Lehman Brothers fails, the real estate market crashes, stocks sell off sharply, and the financial system gets a massive government bailout. Not only do you probably remember all that, but you also probably remember and might still be talking about how the Great Recession was all the fault of greedy bankers and a real sign of the terrible failings of capitalism.

Now it’s time to put all of that in perspective. The economic woes America has suffered over the past seven years have certainly been serious. A lot of people did lose their homes, their jobs, and much of their savings. Excessive greed and dishonesty played a big role in it all, and I join the millions of Americans who continue to be disappointed that very few bank officials or brokerage house executives were ever indicted let alone put in jail. Of course I’d like to see the politicians who enabled the crisis be punished too, even as the federal government’s role in creating the financial crisis gets less of the attention it deserves. But that aside, I’m thankful we did not see widespread chaos in our streets. We did not see people lining up by the thousands outside banks that were limiting withdrawals. The U.S. did get its credit rating lowered, but we never came close to defaulting on our national debt obligations.

Read MoreObamacare: So much for ‘bending the cost curve’

But the Great Recession did produce something else on a very grand scale; anger, vitriol and lots of finger pointing. News reports, books, and even Hollywood movies were quickly out there blaming the greedy bankers for robbing the country. There was also an overreaction and massive backlash against free market ideals and capitalism, as if greed, failure, and criminal activity were their exclusive domain. And in what may be the most enduring reaction to the Great Recession, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama saw his poll numbers soar as soon as Lehman famously collapsed on September 15, 2008. He was helped enormously as he was seen as an opponent to the big banks, even though he voted for the massive TARP bank bailout two weeks later.

That was all to be expected. Hey, the Great Recession hurt a lot of people and when people get hurt there is almost always a reaction of some kind that ends up overdoing it. Capitalism took one on the chin in a big way and so did the party controlling the White House at the time. But here’s the problem: what we’re seeing in Greece right now is much, much worse than anything that’s happened in the U.S. economically since 2008. Thousands of people over there truly are lining up outside the banks. Even more Greeks are starting to hoard cash, food, and medicine. This isn’t just hurting the Greek people with overpriced homes or a bubble-inflated stock portfolio. That nation is on the heels of a real panic.

Read MoreYep, socialism killed Puerto Rico too

And yet while Greece’s epic debt problems have dominated the news, I haven’t heard very much about who is to blame for what’s happened in that country. When any bank or other capitalist entity fails, the news media and the general public seem to name their favorite specific villains almost instantly. The word “profit” becomes dirty somehow and public figures start pining away for a more giving society that never was. But where is the condemnation of socialism and the failed politicians who peddled a proven failure of a system not only to the Greeks but to the half billion people who live in the E.U.? Where is the recognition that when the Greeks recently elected an even more leftist and socialist government, it sped up the path to collapse? Why is this Greek crisis being depicted as simply some kind of surprising isolated incident or the failure of a quirky nation that has some kind of unique set of challenges? Even if you watch all the great interviews Michelle Cabruso-Cabrera has been conducting on CNBC with ordinary Greek citizens, you won’t hear socialism blamed by the people… ever. Even in the eye of one of the worst postwar economic storms in European history, socialism is getting yet another pass.

Read MoreA scary Venezuelan lesson for us

Make no mistake, the classic weaknesses of socialism are playing out in as clear a way as you can possibly see them in Greece right now. Here they are: Greece ran out of other people’s money. Greece’s politicians made sweeping pension and benefit promises they could not keep. Greece expected to live in a fashion greater than the wealth it produced, etc. But I don’t expect any bestselling books to be published in the coming year filled with anecdotes about socialist politicians who believed or didn’t believe their own socialist lies. I don’t expect Michael Moore or the big Hollywood studios to come out with movies about Greek pensioners making more in retirement than they did when they worked and then furiously threatening anyone who suggested they take some kind of cutback. And I can live with that because the best books and writings about the dangers and follies of socialism have probably already been written by Milton Friedman, Frederic Bastiat and Ludwig von Mises. And I doubt anyone could ever make better movies about the economic effects of socialism than Dr. Zhivago or Ninotchka. I’ll live without the recognition of socialist mayhem from the entertainment media.

But the biggest problem with the rest of the media not identifying socialism as the culprit in this massive public failure goes beyond letting the guilty party go free. The real danger is that all the other nations and politicians currently pushing socialist programs on small and grand scales will not be slowed in the slightest by Greece’s collapse. Dozens of U.S. states with unpayable pension obligations will continue moving along as usual. The federal government will continue to expand food stamp and medicaid rolls even as the economy improves. We’re simply squandering the relatively free lesson we should be learning from someone else’s massive socialist failure. We may not have changed much about our capital markets to help avoid a repeat of the 2008 crashes, but at least there was a very loud call for reform. Where’s the call to fix the failed socialist model of the E.U. from a source other than American right wing talk radio?

That call is likely not going to come. Some kind of new deal will be worked out and the rest of the E.U. will try to generate enough wealth to placate the neverending welfare demands coming from its member countries. When it doesn’t, this scenario will repeat itself over and over until a much more painful remedy for all of Europe and the world will take place. And it will all be because it’s become too politically incorrect or burdensome to diagnose the clear cause of this economic malady.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of “Power Lunch.” Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

Posted in culture and cycle of dependency, Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rico people, Puerto Rico > Venezuela > Socialism, Puerto Rico economic crisis, Puerto Rico politics and government | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Welfare in Puerto Rico, SNAP, Food Stamps, Fraud

U.S. Food Stamps In Puerto Rico Costing You 2 Billion Dollars

Puerto Rico

image credit
(AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

More than one-third of the population in Puerto Rico is now on food stamps. American taxpayers are now handing out more than $2 billion each year to residents of Puerto Rico – most of it in cash. Since the food stamps are forked over in cash form, it is impossible to know if the hard-earned taxpayer funds are actually even being used to provide food for the poor.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently admitted that the federal agency cannot verify how the Puerto Rico food stamps funds are being spent, but don’t appear to have a plan to correct the possible taxpayer abuse. Most of the American money is distributed through the Nutrition Assistant Program, also known as NAP. Another portion of the funding stems from the 2009 stimulus package.

The idea of federally mandated charity must end, and end soon, or the greatest nation in the world will be broke and we will be faced with a raging civil unrest scenario. In Puerto Rico, approximately 1.37 million residents were handed food stamps during 2012. The average unemployment rate in the Caribbean nation is 14.2 percent and the median annual household income is about $19,000.

Statistics for the food-based entitlement program in the United States boast a doom and gloom outlook as well. In 2012, approximately 48 million residents were handed food stamps every month. The number of Americans on food stamps represents about 15.2 percent of the overall population. Americans have a long history of setting records, but the new high of one-in-five households dependent upon the government (i.e. taxpayers) to put food on their dinner plates is cringe-worthy and not something worthy of a ribbon or medal.

In Puerto Rico, the food stamps program does not operate like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the United States. Puerto Rican officials are permitted to distribute the taxpayer dollars in the form of block grants. Under the reported guidelines of the program, a total of 25 percent of the individual’s “benefit” can be turned over in cash form. The average monthly entitlement amount received by residents is roughly $240.  NOTE:  $240 monthly in food stamps is $8 per day.  $240/30=$8

A USDA report issued in 2010 noted that it is “widely acknowledged” that Puerto Rican food stamps recipients spend their cash allotment on items other than food. For three years the government has been aware of the taxpayer abuse, but has not opted to end the program until the fraud is corrected.

An excerpt from the USDA food stamps report reads:

“Like SNAP, NAP distributes benefits on an EBT debit card. However, unlike SNAP, up to 25 percent of the monthly benefit may be redeemed for cash. When cash is withdrawn from an ATM, there is no way to verify that funds are spent on food; however, the 25 percent provided in cash is designated for food purchases. One of the main reasons that provisions of 25 percent of the benefits in cash was built into the program was to allow participants without access to certified retailers a way to purchase food.”

obama food stampsExtending the food stamps program to Puerto Rice began in 1974. The federal government made the illogical decision to replace guidelines which at least attempted to include a verification process with a block grant system in 1982. Current food stamp eligibility requirements for Puerto Rico residents applying for the taxpayer funded program range from having a maximum income of $2,796 for a one person household to having a maximum income of $12,708 for a seven person home.

The Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act was introduced in Congress last month. The bill was proposed by the island nation’s only non-voting congressman. The Puerto Rico statehood bill has 30 sponsors from both sides of the political aisle. Puerto Rican citizens have benefited from the country’s relationship with America for about a century, but the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act is the first time legislation to make the nation the 51st state has been introduced in the US Congress.

If Puerto Rican voters opt for statehood, the bill requires President Barack Obama to draft legislation within 180 days to create the 51st state. Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi had this to say about the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act:

“The government of the United States is a champion of democracy and self-determination, and it has to adhere to these principles with respect to its own citizens. Puerto Rico has been called the shiny star of the Caribbean, and it’s time that our state shines, together with the other states, on the flag of the United States of America.”

A “two question status plebiscite” conducted in November showed that 61 percent of Puerto Ricans wanted statehood and 33 percent wanted to become a free nation with an “association” with the United States of America. The remaining responders wanted outright independence. In March, the Obama administration added $2.5 million to the budget plan for a vote to be held in Puerto Rico.

Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the governor of Puerto Rico supports the commonwealth status the island currently holds but does want a final resolution to the status debate. Padilla also stated that he is most concerned with combating the struggling economy in Puerto Rico and battling the high crime rate. Just what America needs—another state with a struggling economy with lots of crime. A presidential task force on Puerto Rico determined in 2011 that the island was “hindered” economically and on a social development platform due to the lack of a resolution on the status question.

The commonwealth status Puerto Ricans currently enjoy means that they are non-voting US citizens who do not pay income taxes but are reportedly required to contribute to Social Security. As American citizens, they are eligible for all welfare entitlement programs.

The massive number of residents partaking of the taxpayer funded social programs has spurred the phrase “welfare island” in some political circles. On average, American taxpayers send $17 billion in welfare funds in Puerto Rico. In addition to food stamps, a multitude of island residents receive housing assistance, medical assistance, and college financial aid. Some estimates put the number of Puerto Rico residents receiving housing assistance as high as 70 percent.

How do you feel about taxpayer funded welfare in Puerto Rico?


Welfare in Puerto Rico

Public welfare in Puerto Rico is a system of nutrition assistance, public health, education, and subsidized public housing, among others, provided to the impoverished population of the island. It is mainly funded by United States Federal assistance and by local government funds.

Federal aid

Puerto Rico received more than $6.5 billion annually in federal aid from the United States.[1] A substantial portion of this amount is earmarked for public welfare, including funding educational programs (such as Head Start), subsidized housing programs (such as (Section 8 and public housing projects), and a food stamp system called the Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico program.

Federal programs

The following programs are provided by the U.S. Federal government in Puerto Rico:

Inapplicable federal programs

As important as the federal aid programs that apply to needy Puerto Ricans are the federal programs that do not apply or only apply partially to otherwise-qualified residents of Puerto Rico.

The United States Congress, for budgetary reasons, has capped Puerto Rico’s participation in the federal Medicaid program. The current annual spending cap of about $230 million is about 15% of the $1.6 billion that Puerto Rico would receive if equal treatment applied.

While the Medicaid cap could be justified by the fact that Medicaid is financed out of the U.S. Treasury and the federal income tax is generally inapplicable to taxpayers residing in Puerto Rico, the less-than-equal treatment in Medicare is especially unfair since Puerto Rico workers are subject to the full federal payroll tax that finances Medicare and Social Security. Health services providers are shortchanged to the tune of approximately $400 million annually due to reimbursement limits Congress has placed in Puerto Rico under Medicare.

Since the Nixon administration, perhaps the most effective anti-poverty federal program is not a program at all but the reimbursible earned income tax credit (EITC) available to the working poor. The credit currently amounts to a maximum of $4,536 annually to low-income workers. The EITC effectively rewards workers for seeking and keeping their less-than-$36,000 per year jobs and filing a federal tax return, a strong incentive for the work ethic. The EITC does not apply to residents of Puerto Rico, probably depriving close to half of the islands’ workforce of a powerful inducement to seek and retain a job.

The 2006 Brookings Institution/Center for the New Economy report on Puerto Rico’s economy suggested that federal-minimum-wage earning workers in Puerto Rico only receive net monthly income of $50 for their efforts compared to the unemployed who seek full welfare benefits. The federal EITC would multiply the net effect of working three- to six-fold if applied to Puerto Rico.

Another major federal assistance program generally inapplicable to otherwise-qualified residents of Puerto Rico is the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides payments approaching $600 per month to recipients, most of which are aged, disabled or blind. While many aliens legally residing in the United States, as well as non-US citizens residing in the Northern Marianas Islands qualify, American citizens residing in Puerto Rico do not.

The last major federal program not applicable in Puerto Rico is the Food Stamp program. Replaced in 1982 by the tailor-made federal Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico, eligible Puerto Ricans lose $500 million annually in federal benefits.

In sum, unequal treatment in Medicaid, Medicare, EITC, SSI and Food Stamps is conservatively estimated at costing Puerto Ricans approximately $3.4 billion annually, or almost $900 per capita.

See also

Puerto Rico $7.25[30] Employers covered by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are subject only to the federal minimum wage and all applicable regulations. Employers not covered by the FLSA will be subject to a minimum wage that is at least 70 percent of the federal minimum wage or the applicable mandatory decree rate, whichever is higher. The Secretary of Labor and Human Resources may authorize a rate based on a lower percentage for any employer who can show that implementation of the 70 percent rate would substantially curtail employment in that business. Puerto Rico also has minimum wage rates that vary according to the industry. These rates range from a minimum of $5.08 to $7.25 per hour.


Congress Should Not Give Puerto Rico Federal Tax Subsidies

March 22, 2016 8 min read Download Report
Rachel Greszler
Research Fellow in Economics, Budget and Entitlements
Rachel researches and analyzes taxes, Social Security, disability insurance, and pensions to promote economic growth.

Policymakers are considering extending federal tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC)—but not the rest of the federal tax code—to Puerto Rico as a way to help the island emerge from its economic and fiscal crisis. This would amount to an expensive cash bailout and would not address the core problems that caused Puerto Rico’s crisis.

The EITC would primarily boost the incomes of Puerto Rico’s middle class without helping those who are unemployed, working in the underground economy, or living on welfare benefits. The CTC would shift income toward families without spurring economic growth. Given the highly problematic and costly improper payment rates of the EITC and CTC among federal taxpayers, extending them to non-federal taxpayers would likely result in even higher rates of fraudulent payments.

Federal Tax Credits for Residents Not Subject to Federal Income Taxes

Because they live in a U.S. territory, Puerto Rican residents are not subject to U.S. federal income taxes. While they and their employers pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, those are filed by employers. Most Puerto Ricans have no interaction with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). A 2014 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that if Puerto Rico were a state and subject to the federal income tax, its residents would have paid an estimated $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion in federal individual income taxes in 2010 (after netting out refundable tax credits such as the EITC and CTC) and as much as $3.4 billion more in federal corporate income taxes.[1]

As refundable tax credits, the EITC and CTC function as tax credits and welfare benefits. The EITC provided roughly $73 billion in payments to working Americans in 2015.[2] About $10 billion was a refund for federal income taxes paid, while the overwhelming majority—$63 billion—was “refundable” and equivalent to welfare benefits. The CTC provided about $57 billion in payments to families with children in 2015, including about $23 billion in credits against taxes paid and $34 billion in effective welfare benefits.

While some individuals who receive the EITC and CTC do not pay any federal income taxes, they are still subject to federal income taxes, meaning they will pay federal income taxes if their earnings rise. Absent a change in Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans will never pay federal income taxes. Moreover, because it is difficult to enact legislation that targets a select group, policymakers would extend the EITC and CTC to all federal territories, increasing the cost and providing windfall benefits.

Federal tax benefits should be reserved for those who are subject to the federal income tax. Temporary access to the EITC and CTC for Puerto Rico and other territories would quickly transform into permanent access to those benefits and a whole host of other federal tax credits.

Puerto Rico has the authority to implement its own wage subsidy, which it did, temporarily, from 2007–2013 through a “work credit.” Puerto Rico’s version of the EITC was smaller, with a maximum work credit of $450. The credit was initially available to families making up to $20,000 per year, and that limit increased over time to $27,500 in 2013. About 45 percent of Puerto Rico’s tax filers claimed the credit, costing the Puerto Rican government about $124 million per year.[3] The Puerto Rican government eliminated its work credit as a cost-savings measure in 2014.

Puerto Rico Needs More Jobs, Not Higher Wages

Only about 38 percent of Puerto Rico’s working-age population (ages 15–64) has a job in the formal economy,[4] and just over 12 percent of Puerto Ricans are unemployed. That leaves half of Puerto Rico’s working-age population not looking for jobs. Some of these individuals are students and homemakers, but most are either on the sidelines collecting federal welfare benefits, or working for lower wages without paying taxes, or both. Since workers do not report underground earnings, they can double up on both wages and welfare benefits.

A 1996 GAO report estimated that about 59 percent of Puerto Rican workers would qualify for the EITC.[5] However, with only about 38 percent of its working-age population employed in jobs in the formal economy, access to the EITC would be significantly limited and the benefits misappropriated. The 38 percent of Puerto Ricans who have jobs in the formal economy are not the ones most in need of help. The 62 percent of Puerto Rico’s working-age population who are unemployed, working in the underground economy, or living on welfare benefits are the ones who need greater opportunities for work. Anyone with a formal job in Puerto Rico makes at least $7.25 per hour (the federal minimum wage), which is equal to 77 percent of the island’s median wage.[6]

A Puerto Rican couple with two children and one earner making the median wage of $9.42 per hour[7] (just under $20,000 per year) would qualify for $5,572[8] in EITC payments and $2,000 in CTC payments, effectively increasing their income by $7,572 or nearly 40 percent.[9] These tax subsidies are calibrated to mainland wages and price levels. At the island’s wage levels, the subsidy would miss those it was intended to help—those at the margins of the workforce—and heavily subsidize those who are already in the middle of the distribution.

A similar family with $10,000 in off-the-books earnings or one in which both parents are unemployed would not receive anything from the CTC or EITC. Moreover, as long as their jobs remain barred from benefit by the minimum wage, they cannot choose to move into the formal sector. The EITC subsidizes earnings for families with incomes as high as $53,495, which is more than the income of approximately 85 percent of Puerto Rican households.[10]

Rather than higher paying jobs for a select few who are already better off than most Puerto Ricans, the federal government should exempt Puerto Rico from the federal minimum wage. The Puerto Rican government should do its part as well by eliminating costly and onerous labor-market regulations such as mandatory Christmas bonuses, excessive paid leave, and the inability to fire workers without significant costs. These regulations make it difficult for Puerto Rico to attract businesses that will employ workers and contribute to their economic output and tax revenues. Without new businesses and jobs, Puerto Rico cannot emerge from its economic and financial crisis.

Federal Minimum Wage Would Thwart Purpose of EITC

The purpose of the EITC is to encourage unemployed individuals, those working less than full-time, and those receiving welfare benefits to work or work more. The wage subsidy that the EITC provides raises the effective wages individuals can earn by as much as 45 percent. As a result, the EITC can boost the incomes of workers with three or more children by as much as $6,269.[11] As individuals earn more, however, and the EITC is phased out, it acts as an additional marginal tax of up to 21 percent.

Higher wages through the EITC can increase work effort and make individuals less dependent on other welfare benefits. In Puerto Rico, however, the excessively high federal minimum wage would prohibit those most in need from receiving the EITC. Some have argued that, in Puerto Rico, the EITC could help bring workers out from the underground economy and into formal jobs where they both pay Puerto Rican taxes and receive worker protections. While it is hard to measure the underground economy, estimates suggest Puerto Rico’s informal economy accounts for 23 percent to 28 percent of its gross national product (GNP).[12]

However, because the minimum wage is such an impediment to formal employment in Puerto Rico, the EITC would have limited impact. Even if informal workers want to transition to the formal economy and earn higher wages from the EITC, most employers in the underground economy cannot afford to bring their workers’ wages up to the federal minimum necessary to be on the books.

High Rates of Fraudulent Tax Credits Likely

The EITC and CTC are among the most widely abused federal tax provisions. Two 2014 studies from the Treasury Inspector General concluded that the U.S. spent between $13.3 billion and $15.6 billion[13] in improper EITC payments and between $5.9 billion and $7.1 billion[14] in improper Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) payments in 2013, with many tax filers falsely claiming additional children and reporting more income than they actually earned.[15] Moreover, the report concluded that the IRS continues not to comply with the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act (IPERA) of 2010, which defines “significant” improper payment as 2.5 percent or more of total program outlays.[16] With a 25 percent to 30 percent improper payment rate for the ACTC and a 22 percent to 26 percent improper payment rate for the EITC, these credits are inefficiently enforced and widely abused.[17]

If these credits have 25 percent or greater improper payment rates when the IRS has access to federal taxpayers’ tax data and can audit them, just imagine how high the improper payment rate would be in Puerto Rico where residents neither pay nor file federal tax returns and the U.S. government has no ability to audit them.

Presumably, the IRS would have to rely on Puerto Rico’s Treasury Department, or “Hacienda,” to implement and enforce the EITC. However, Puerto Rico’s tax administration is abysmal as the island collects only a little over half of its applicable taxes.[18] If the government enforces little more than half the taxes that go into its own coffers, it is even less likely to properly administer and enforce tax credits that cost the Puerto Rican government nothing and that could even boost the island’s tax revenues.


Puerto Rico is facing a serious economic and fiscal crisis. Allowing non-taxpayers access to federal tax credits, such as the EITC and CTC, would be a misguided cash bailout. The EITC would flow primarily to relatively privileged Puerto Ricans with jobs in the formal economy, while at the same time failing to increase incomes or opportunity for the island’s many unemployed and underemployed; the CTC would do little more than provide windfall benefits to families with children. Furthermore, extending tax credits that already have excessively high improper payment rates to territories that do not pay or file federal income taxes—to be administered by a tax administration that only collects about half its own taxes—will lead to high rates of fraudulent payments and excessive costs for federal taxpayers.

Eliminating the federal minimum wage, which restricts potential businesses from locating on the island and pushes others into underground operations, would do far more to boost Puerto Rico’s economy and growth potential than the federal EITC. With a minimum-wage exemption, Puerto Rico could implement its own wage subsidy targeted to very low earners. This would help bring more workers into the formal economy where they will pay taxes and help boost Puerto Rico’s revenues. Congress can also help Puerto Rico grow by providing it with an exemption from the maritime Jones Act, which drives up shipping and production costs, and by granting the island more flexibility in how it administers some federal welfare benefits so that they do not discourage work.

—Rachel Greszler is Senior Policy Analyst in Economics and Entitlements in the Center for Data Analysis, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation. Anil Niraula, a member of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leader’s Program, assisted in the research for this report.

Posted in corruption, crime, culture and cycle of dependency, Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rico people, Puerto Rico > Venezuela > Socialism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Federal authorities to stop fraud in healthcare programs

It is widely known that in PR, there is a great deal of healthcare fraud, as many citizens under-report their income to qualify for free medical care.  Doctors and dentists in PR have told me that it’s easier for the government to continue paying for individuals’ medical care than conducting investigations to stop fraud on the consumer level.   This serves to perpetuate the citizenry continuing to scam the system and drives up costs for the honest people, who have to pay to cover the dishonest ones.

Does anyone check income reported to the IRS compared to income reported to qualify for free medical?  Why not have a reward for reporting fraud?

Federal authorities to stop fraud in healthcare programs

However, there is no record of the usual schemes or the losses this practice leaves on the island

Tuesday, September 4, 2018 – 10:43 AM

José Luis Soto, deputy director at the OIG of the US Health Department in Puerto Rico. (semisquare-x3)
José Luis Soto, deputy director at the OIG of the US Health Department in Puerto Rico. (André Kang)

Between 2010 and 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the US Department of Health and Human Services in Puerto Rico convicted 238 people of fraud related to Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The number reflects the serious fraud problem the island is facing and the effort of federal authorities to revert the losses that these schemes cause to healthcare services.

“When you commit this type of crime, you are not only defrauding the government or the plan, delegated by the government, you are also defrauding the beneficiary, who may be stolen information to submit false claims,” said José Luis Soto, deputy director at the OIG of the US Health Department in Puerto Rico.

Fraud against federal healthcare programs happens when someone knowingly submits false information with the intention to defraud. “We are identifying whether such claim was false or not,” he said.

According to the National Health Care Fraud Takedown 2018, the OIG and the US Department of Health issued, between June 2017 and 2018, a total of 587 exclusion notices against individuals and entities whose conduct contributed to the diversion and abuse of opioids.

Throughout the United States, these notices exclude these people from participating in all federal healthcare programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. There were 67 doctors, 402 nurses and 40 pharmacies among those notices.

Soto explained that these statistics do not include data on the island since, during the period under review, there was only one search warrant issued in the office of a podiatrist which did not end in arrest.

In the United States, doctors, nurses, licensed health professionals and owners of healthcare companies were accused of submitting more than $ 2 billion in fraudulent billing.

In New York Eastern District, 13 people were accused – during the time evaluated – of participating in a variety of schemes, including bribes, not provided services, identity theft and money laundering, involving more than $ 38 million in fraudulent billing .

Different schemes

The official warned that it is difficult to determine what type of fraud prevails the most on the island, as well as the amount of losses at local level.

However, Soto confirmed that they have observed – in Puerto Rico and in the United States – an increase on schemes in controlled medicines area.

Having the  insurance company paying for clinically unnecessary drugs and altering the packaging is included within this type of practice.

“Right now, it’s a mix of everything. I would tell you that if we classify them, doctors, medical equipment and medicines are among the most visible,” said the federal official.

He stressed that, a few years ago, the main fraud was in the medical equipment supplier industry.

Soto stated that the decrease in this line is the result of several initiatives. As an example, he mentioned the efforts of the OIG and contracting, through Advantage plans, specific companies to sell equipment.

“We had cases of prosthesis for patients with both legs,” said Soto.

One of the modalities within medical equipment fraud was among individuals who moved to the island and acquired this type of company for their transactions.

He explained that, once the company was acquired, the new owner changed the banking information and Medicare records into his name, and thus obtained patient lists. “If you buy the company, they sell it to you with the records, and you start to submit false bills,” he added.

Under that scheme, in 2010 – after an OIG investigation – the Federal Prosecutor’s office prosecuted Antonio Del Pino Castillo, owner of Marla’s Medical Equipment (MME), who submitted $ 934,406 to Medicare in false claims for leg prosthesis for people who did not need them.

Medicare paid $ 531,485 of the total claims.

“We have to work very fast in this type of cases because they are schemes that come from Miami, and right now, we have had cases that left the jurisdiction,” he said.

South Florida is known as Medicare and Medicaid fraud capital, said Soto. “Right now, the Miami office is one of the offices where we have the most resources. There are $ 100 (million) and $ 300 million cases, there,” he said.

The Doctors scheme 

There are several schemes among doctors: unnecessary prescriptions, practicing without license, bills for services not provided and altering claims.

“It is usual to forge medical records to cover what they did,” said Soto.

These schemes imply prison, reinstating the money, losing the licence and well as the exclusion as an OIG provider.

“We had large restitutions. We had a case that had to pay $ 2.5 million,” Soto recalled.

Joint initiatives

Soto explained that they maintain collaboration agreements with other state and federal agencies to expand the scope of their.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Drug and Food Administration (FDA), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Health and medical plans are among those agencies.

They also hope that the fraud control unit (Medicaid Fraud Control Unit), also known as MFCU, will soon start operating.

The creation of this unit – which would be attached to the state Department of Justice -, was announced by Ricardo Rossello Nevares administration in July. It represents an alternative for the OIG to submit cases at state level.

MFCU would investigate supplier fraud cases, abuse and neglecting and mistreating  patients. “The question here is to look for other forums. Typically, these cases of fraud against health services programs tend to be abit complex. What we are trying to do is look for more resources, see how we can move them faster,” he noted.

Puerto Rico was the only jurisdiction of continental US that did not have a unit against fraud. “If you remove these people fast, then you block and prevent from losing money, that is what we want to do,” he explained.

“Out of necessity”

During the last four years, the Department of Health Medicaid program received 2,700 referrals to investigate possible fraud cases of the Government’s Health Plan.

Recovery does not exceed $ 250,000 in the last four years

Luz Cruz Romero, executive director of the program, explained that they exclusively investigate the schemes in which participants alter information to qualify for a public medical plan. She said that most of the beneficiaries lie about their income to qualify.

“You can find that pattern in any social assistance program. Fraud has always existed, it will always exist. The important thing is to have the tools and mechanisms to prevent it,” said Cruz Romero.

Health insurance serves a population of 1.5 million individuals.

She indicated that they also maintain information exchanges with the Department of the Treasury that allow them to investigate and identify suspicious patterns that, if not under their jurisdiction, are referred to the OIG.

She said that, in 2016, they discovered a scheme through which government employees sold eligibility certificates.

Based on the amount and the scheme, the OIG processes them, and if not, they go on to an internal administrative hearing process before the Department of Health, and then they proceeds to the recovery of the premium or a fine.

“We try to be proactive, but we depend on referrals. If referrals arrive with information that is not sufficient to open or to reach a conclusion, that case does not prosper,” said the official.

Cruz Romero acknowledged that, in most cases, participants involved in this type of criminal attitude claim that they do it out of necessity.

“Many people are in need, and in many cases the person is eligible. The fear of not being eligible, not being able to obtain the card because they have health conditions, leads people to hide information,” she said.

To qualify, an individual can not exceed $ 800 per month income. The figure rises to $ 1,200 in the case of minors. 42 percent of the insured population has the government’s plan.

For professor and sociologist Joel Villa, the fraud on the island is the same as in other spheres and jurisdictions. He said that – in several cases – it is due to systems vulnerabilities that have not been corrected.

“Fraud happens in all spheres.  It does not respond to us being a corrupt country,” said the professor at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico.

“There will always be a person who, when they realize there is a vulnerability, will take advantage of it,” he noted.

The easy way out would be to resort to this type of behavior as a result of lack of values, said Villa. “It would fall into something utopian and philosophical …”, he pointed out.

Meanwhile, psychologist Carlos Sosa argued that, from the service providers perspective, many have fallen into the lucrative vision that the medical industry generates.

From the patient’s perspective – without trying to justify the actions – Sosa sees this behavior as a sign of despair. “The cost of living has risen so much that many times they lie to cope with such high pressure to preserve health”, he said.

“There is a critical situation in Puerto Rico. On one hand, we have people who are economically disadvantaged, and on the other, those who have a vested interest in making lot of money at the expense of that economic disadvantage,” he concluded.

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How long should free hotels last for Hurricane Maria evacuees from 9-20-17?

How long should free hotels last for Hurricane Maria evacuees from 9-20-17?  Should there be a time limit?   Assuming finding one of the cheaper hotel rates at $65/night x 30 days = $1950/month.  $65/night x 365 days = $23,725/year.   Most hotels around Orlando, similar to those mentioned in the article cost far more than $65/night.  These are the pre-taxes prices.

“We should not be going through this”

Refusal to extend the federal Temporary Shelter Assistance program has left dozens of Puerto Rican families in Central Florida in a limbo

Saturday, September 1, 2018 – 12:15 PM

About 1,030 families (2,809 people) remained in temporary shelters in the United States. (semisquare-x3)
About 1,030 families (2,809 people) remained in temporary shelters in the United States. (Carla D. Martínez / Especial para GFR Media)

Orlando – People call them “the ones from Fema “, since they have been wandering from hotel to hotel, with their clothes in plastic bags or in trolleys, like outcasts, for a year.

Some have managed to make the transition, and moved to permanent housing. But others – who to date still live in hostels – are in a limbo. They cannot return to Puerto Rico because the hurricane devastated their homes and the option of staying in Florida, either because they are under medical treatment or because they have children at school, has become a nightmare as housing in this state is more expensive than in Puerto Rico.

“This is so sad, because after working so many years, we should not be going through this,” said Carmen Muñoz, 67, who has been married to Benjamin for 47 years.

Long before, they used to live in the United States, but when Benjamin was diagnosed with colon cancer, and he thought he did not have much time left, he wanted to return to Puerto Rico. The good news was that Benjamin got better after several surgeries. The bad news was that Maria destroyed the house they rented on the island.

The winds ripped the windows of the house, took off the roof tiles and severely damaged the structure. The couple, without children, had their little house on a hill in Humacao, “near Palmas del Mar,” he said.

That is why they decided to come to Orlando and since then they have lived in four hotels: at the Quality Inn in Clermont, at the Days Inn in Sanford, at the Woodspring in Orlando and now in the Staybridge. But yesterday, several hours after talking to El Nuevo Día, the hotel management warned them that they had to leave because they never received the FEMA notice on the Temporary Shelter Assistance program (TSA) extension, which validity was extended from August 31 to September 14.

After several efforts they found out that it was an error, but until then, they went through deep distress and anxiety.

On Friday, District Judge Timothy S. Hillman rejected a request for this program to remain in effect indefinitely, but he extended its validity two more weeks: until September 14.

As of yesterday, 1,030 families (2,809 people) remained in temporary shelters in the United States, according to FEMA data. It is estimated that about 130 are in the central Florida area.

“I was devastated when I heard the judge’s decision, because the rumor was that they would extend it until December and that would give us a little more time to look for an apartment,” said Benjamín.

They have been looking for a place to live all this time. “We have found some apartments, but they ask us $ 1,300 per month and we cannot afford that. We find others for $ 700 per month, but there are two-year waiting lists and we cannot return to Puerto Rico, because we have no one there, no relatives to house us. Besides, the doctors who are treating me are,” said the man, who was head of security guards at a company in Massachusetts and then manager at the Rain Forest Cafe in Disney Springs. But, he had to retire when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“We don´t know what we will do on September 14,” said the 70-year-old man. “We are American citizens and we have worked here in the United States for years and we pay taxes. I think the governor of Puerto Rico has abandoned us and Florida governor, Rick Scott, too. FEMA has spent its millions in Hawaii, where nothing happened, but not a penny on us. Why, instead of spending so much on paying for hotels, they do not buy trailers, which are cheaper?”.

“We are not criminals, but wherever we go they treat us like that. They tell us ‘the ones from FEMA’, that we break everything; and they even ask us to return to Puerto Rico,” he lamented.

Lisandra Martinez arrived in October 2017, and just as she was beginning to feel she was stabilizing and that her work was showing signs of progress, the 32-year-old woman was diagnosed with womb cancer. She felt devastated and that joined the anxiety and uncertainty of not having permanent housing. “I want a good education for my seven-year-old son and I have it here, and that’s why I do not want to go back to the island,” she said.

She had to stop working while she undergoes treatment. Her partner, Jonathan Ramos, 29, left the island and moved in with her to help her. A week ago, he found a job at a construction company where he is paid $ 11 an hour.

She had a voucher from the federal Housing Section 8 Plan to get a home for $ 980 a month. But, in Florida, that figure is hardly enough to pay the rent of a small study where children or couples are not allowed. “As I could not find one, they took my voucher, because it expired,” said the young woman.

“When that day arrives, well, I do not know, I’ll see if we look for a friend that will receive us at home while we find an apartment, because we have been looking for it,” she said.

Even since before the hurricane, Florida faced a deficit of affordable housing and, although there have been initiatives from counties like Osceola to develop low-cost housing projects, these houses will not be ready in the short term. So acknowledged Puerto Rican Republican representative Bob Cortes, who may be the candidate for lieutenant governor of Ron DeSantis, who seeks the governorship of Florida.

“I’m optimistic that another judge will come and extend this. That’s what happened after Katrina in Louisiana, and FEMA extended the program for 23 months,” Cortes said. “The other option is to look for housing outside the Orlando area or in another state where prices are lower,” he said.

However, the idea of dismembering the group that these Puerto Ricans have created would be adverse, suggested sociologist and professor at the University of Central Florida Fernando Rivera. “It would break the environment of support they have created,” said the expert, who explained that the uncertainty of not knowing where to live causes high levels of anxiety and even depression.

“This has become a cyclical issue where local, federal, the city and Puerto Rican governments have been passing the ball from one place to another and, after a year, people were left in the middle without a solution,” he said. “This is still a humanitarian crisis and I am concerned about the mental health of these families,” he added.

We requested an interview to La Fortaleza and to the administration of Florida governor, Rick Scott, without answers.

On this issue, Puerto Rican descent congressman Darren Soto said that he will make arrangements with the government of Puerto Rico to identify homes in which displaced people can stay. He also noted that he will continue his campaign in Congress to approve a disaster housing assistance program that provides long-term housing.

For Episcopal priest Jose Rodriguez, of the Jesus de Nazaret Church, this decision is like a return ticket to Puerto Rico for American citizens, with the same rights as the victims in Texas, Florida and Louisiana to be forgotten, he said.

The priest said that, there was an idea in several debates to open emergency shelters, such as those that are activated when a hurricane comes, as a temporary solution while the situation is being resolved. The problem with this idea is that most of the shelters operate in schools and the school semester has already began.

“Governments have used non-profit organizations to do their work, and, now, these entities have run out of economic resources to continue,” said the priest, who has intensively worked with Puerto Rican communities.

“This is discrimination. What makes our people different from other citizens? What makes us less deserving of help?,” he asked.

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