Why isn’t the government solving the crime problems, even before they irresponsibly overspent beyond their means to become bankrupt?
Whenever she goes out now, Nellie Pena pulls her long hair up in a bun and takes off her earrings. The windows of her 1983 Camaro have been tinted dark.
“That way they can’t tell a woman is driving,” the 52-year-old Ms. Pena said.
Jorge Mate, 23, routinely circles the block around his condominium at least once before parking on the street. He is always ready to jam down on the gas pedal.
“I look at people more,” he said. “I’m more attentive to the clothes they are wearing. If a guy is wearing his shirt untucked, he could have a gun in the back.”
Ms. Pena and Mr. Mate are both recent victims of carjackings, and they are not alone in feeling somewhat paranoid. Those who have never confronted an armed car thief here almost invariably know others who have, and the risk of getting in and out of the car is by now so ingrained in the collective psyche that it has changed driving and social habits. For many, it often dictates whether to go out after dark.
In 1992, the latest year for which comparative figures are available, San Juan was second only to Los Angeles in the number of carjackings and led all major American cities in carjackings per capita, officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Puerto Rico said. Los Angeles, a city of more than 3.4 million people, had 7,187 carjackings that year; San Juan, with a population of less than 450,000, had 3,192. The authorities say an export market in the Caribbean and Latin America helps make the crime particularly prominent here.
The Fear Persists
Since 1992, when the taking of a vehicle with a firearm was made a Federal crime, with penalties of up to life in prison, the number of carjackings in Puerto Rico has dropped dramatically, police statistics show. There were 4,522 carjackings in Puerto Rico in 1993, compared with 8,669 the previous year. And the number is likely to fall further this year: the totals for each of the first five months of the year were lower than the corresponding figures from 1993.
But many Puerto Ricans have barely noticed the decline. The crime is still so prevalent that one newspaper, El Vocero, a tabloid, tracks the number of carjackings daily in a box on its second page.
“I don’t believe there are fewer carjackings,” said Carmen Gutierrez, 55, who had just made her husband drive three times around the parking lot of the Plaza Las Americas mall until he found a spot near a store entrance. “The other day they stole 23 cars in one day. I heard it on the radio.”
About 80 percent of the armed thefts occur in San Juan and its metropolitan area, and it is here that residents are the most apprehensive. In June the island was powerfully reminded of the danger when Jose Jaime Pierluisi, 28, an economic affairs adviser to Gov. Pedro Rossello, was shot to death shortly before midnight during a car theft in front of his home in San Juan’s affluent Condado section as he returned from seeing his girlfriend.
Two years ago, the father of Mayor Hector Luis Acevedo of San Juan was also shot dead during an attempted carjacking in Rio Piedras, in the southeast part of the capital.
“The Pierluisi case reminds us that we’re all vulnerable,” Governor Rossello, who declared three days of national mourning, said.
Drivers have made adjustments, big and small. Some now keep their car keys separate from other keys in case they have to hand them over quickly. Many avoid late movies or nighttime stops to make telephone calls or use cash machines.
Fear has also helped drive up sales of cellular telephones and sophisticated security systems. One car alarm company, Asset Conservation, has been advertising a system in which the driver reports a carjacking to a computer command center. The center then sends a computer message to a communications satellite to turn off the ignition and make the car lights flash and the horn blow.
So far, 300 drivers have paid $595 each, with a monthly fee of $15, for the product, the company said.
Mr. Rossello, who was elected on an anti-crime platform and has undertaken policies like increasing the police force and complementing it with National Guard troops, said the car thefts were a manifestation of a drug problem that was also responsible for a disproportionately high homicide rate. The authorities say crime on the island has dramatically increased in the last decade as Puerto Rico has become the major entry point for drugs from South America into the United States.
As in other places, carjackings became fashionable here partly as security systems made it harder to steal unoccupied vehicles. But unlike in the states, where most carjacked vehicles are recovered, less than 20 percent of the stolen cars reappear here, F.B.I. officials said. There is an export market for the stolen vehicles in Latin America and the Caribbean, the officials and the police said, and the cars are often chopped for parts or shipped whole.
Superintendent Pedro A. Toledo, head of the Puerto Rico police, called carjacking “an extremely serious problem” but said he expected the downward trend to continue because of heightened public awareness and vigilance. Mr. Toledo said the authorities had begun random inspections of junkyards, chop shops and car fairs to make it harder on the thieves to profit from the thefts. There is also a 25-member carjacking task force of F.B.I. agents and police officers to investigate cases that involve the use of a firearm.
Most carjackings involve handguns, but injuries and deaths are unusual, police and F.B.I. officials said. Most carjackings occur between 7 P.M. and 6 A.M., near stores and gas stations, the police said.
Fighting the Paranoia
Ms. Pena, an administrative assistant, said she was on her way to buy milk with a neighbor in the early evening last December when she stopped on the shoulder of the road to check a tire. She said a man came running toward her, pulled out a gun and ordered her and her neighbor to lie on the ground.
He took Ms. Pena’s keys, her purse and her 1983 Camaro. The car was recovered, but Ms. Pena said she is still a wreck. She said she no longer goes out after dark.
“I’ve lost interest in everything,” she said.
Some residents are more nonchalant, shrugging off carjackings as part of the price of living in the city.
“What city in the world isn’t dangerous?” asked Jose Soto, 57, a former manager with a car rental company.
Frank Corey, who moved from Chicago with his wife and four children to work on the island for three years as manager for a household product company, said he still drove with his windows down. He said that “almost everybody I know has been carjacked, most in broad daylight” but that he refused to be intimidated.
“The paranoia to me is worse than the carjackings,” Mr. Corey, 44, said. “Everybody is so scared.”
Oscar Morales, 40, an optometrist, agreed. That is why he left the city last year to move to Cabo Rojo, on the southwestern tip of the island.
Mr. Morales said he was the victim of a carjacking in 1989 as he dropped off his girlfriend at 11 P.M. The two men who took his car later robbed a gas station and a night watchman. The two were arrested, and he helped identify and convict them.
But Mr. Morales said the incident traumatized him more than he had expected. “The experience left me with fear,” he said. “I was always looking over my shoulder, always on the defensive.”
Now in Cabo Rojo, he said, he is so carefree that sometimes he leaves his car doors unlocked.
“You’re not constantly thinking about carjackings,” he said. “The change was obvious.”