Democrats question failed $ 156 million agreement for food on the Island
Wednesday, February 7, 2018 – 10:31 AM
By José A. Delgado
Washington – Congressional Democrats want to know the details of a failed FEMA contract that they consider a scandal: $ 156 million were payed to a company that only had its owner as an employee and with a history of noncompliance with the federal government, to deliver 30 million food packs in Puerto Rico.
By then, it should have supplied up to 18.5 million of the food rations it promised to deliver. Neither did it comply with delivering them with the bags in which they are heated.
“It is difficult to understand how FEMA could believe that this small company had the capacity to fulfill this $ 156 million contract,” said Congressman Elijah Cummings (Maryland) and the US Virgin Islands delegate, Stacey Plaskett.
These federal legislators, both Democrats, sent a letter yesterday to the president of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Republican Trey Gowdy (SouthCarolina), in which they request that he demands under warning of contempt the complete file about the contract with Tribute Contracting, any other proposal presented and all the information about contracts canceled or in breach.
Because of its size and the complexity of the task, there are similarities with the Whitefish scandal. Tribute Contracting not only had only one employee, its owner, but also had no experience in emergency aid projects such as the catastrophe caused in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. In addition, the U.S. Publishing Office had determined that Tribute Contracting company, which did not comply with five previous contracts, should not have new agreements with the federal government until January 2019.
The owner subcontracted two companies. One with 11 employees that is dedicated to wedding banquet services. The other is a nonprofit organization in Texas, which had served during Hurricane Harvey, according to The New York Times.
Democratic lawmakers indicated that the case of Tribute Contracting can explain the reports that even in mid-October were received saying that FEMA did not have enough food to distribute and the complaints of mayors like those in San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz , and of Ponce, María ‘Mayita’ Meléndez, on the slow federal response.
The owner of Tribute Contracting, Tiffany Brown, whose company is based in Atlanta, Georgia, told the advisors to the Democratic lawmakers that FEMA was aware that it would not be able to finance, produce and deliver the required meals in the required period.
“This is the most recent example of how Trump’s administration has repeatedly failed the people of Puerto Rico and failed to respond tothis historic disaster,” said Puerto Rican Democratic congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (New York).
Rich people moving to Puerto Rico helps Puerto Rico, because as rich people spend, that injects much needed money into the local economy. Who is likely to help Puerto Rico more – the rich, or poor people? Poor people have no money, while the rich have millions to spend.
Brock Pierce inside the former Children’s Museum in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 26, 2018.
They call what they are building Puertopia. But then someone told them, apparently in all seriousness, that it translates to “eternal boy playground” in Latin. So they are changing the name: They will call it Sol.
Dozens of entrepreneurs, made newly wealthy by blockchain and cryptocurrencies, are heading en masse to Puerto Rico this winter. They are selling their homes and cars in California and establishing residency on the Caribbean island in hopes of avoiding what they see as onerous state and federal taxes on their growing fortunes, some of which now reach into the billions of dollars.
And these men — because they are almost exclusively men — have a plan for what to do with the wealth: They want to build a crypto utopia, a new city where the money is virtual and the contracts are all public, to show the rest of the world what a crypto future could look like. Blockchain, a digital ledger that forms the basis of virtual currencies, has the potential to reinvent society — and the Puertopians want to prove it.
For more than a year, the entrepreneurs had been searching for the best location. After Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure in September and the price of cryptocurrencies began to soar, they saw an opportunity and felt a sense of urgency.
So this crypto community flocked here to create its paradise. Now the investors are spending their days hunting for property where they could have their own airports and docks. They are taking over hotels and a museum in the capital’s historic section, called Old San Juan. They say they are close to getting the local government to allow them to have the first cryptocurrency bank.
“What’s happened here is a perfect storm,” said Halsey Minor, the founder of the news site CNET, who is moving his new blockchain company — called Videocoin — from the Cayman Islands to Puerto Rico this winter. Referring to Hurricane Maria and the investment interest that has followed, he added, “While it was really bad for the people of Puerto Rico, in the long term it’s a godsend if people look past that.”
Puerto Rico offers an unparalleled tax incentive: no federal personal income taxes, no capital gains tax and favorable business taxes — all without having to renounce your American citizenship. For now, the local government seems receptive toward the crypto utopians; the governor will speak at their blockchain summit conference, called Puerto Crypto, in March.
The territory’s go-to blockchain tax lawyer is Giovanni Mendez, 30. He expected the tax expatriates to disappear after Hurricane Maria, but the population has instead boomed.
“It’s increased monumentally,” said Mr. Mendez, who has about two dozen crypto clients. “And they all came together.”
Cryptocurrency investors have flocked to San Juan in recent months, hunting for property where they could have their own airports and docks, and taking over hotels and a museum in the Puerto Rican capital’s historic district.CreditJosé Jiménez-Tirado for The New York Times
The movement is alarming an earlier generation of Puerto Rico tax expats like the hedge fund manager Robb Rill, who runs a social group for those taking advantage of the tax incentives.
“They call me up saying they’re going to buy 250,000 acres so they can incorporate their own city, literally start a city in Puerto Rico to have their own crypto world,” said Mr. Rill, who moved to the island in 2013. “I can’t engage in that.”
The newcomers are still debating the exact shape that Puertopia should take. Some think they need to make a city; others think it’s enough to move into Old San Juan. Puertopians said, however, that they hoped to move very fast.
“You’ve never seen an industry catalyze a place like you’re going to see here,” Mr. Minor said.
José Jiménez-Tirado | The New York Times
A view of Old San Juan from the Monastery Art Suites, in Puerto Rico on Jan. 3, 2018. Dozens of entrepreneurs, made newly wealthy by virtual currencies, have moved to the island to avoid taxes on their fortunes — and to build a society that runs on blockchain.
Until the Puertopians find land, they have descended on the Monastery, a 20,000-square-foot hotel they rented as their base and that was largely unscathed by the hurricane.
Matt Clemenson and Stephen Morris were drinking beer on the Monastery’s roof one recent evening. Mr. Clemenson had an easygoing affect and wore two-tone aviators; Mr. Morris, a loquacious British man, was in cargo shorts and lace-up steel-toed combat boots, with a smartphone on a necklace. They wanted to make two things clear: They chose Puerto Rico because of the hurricane, and they come in peace.
“It’s only when everything’s been swept away that you can make a case for rebuilding from the ground up,” Mr. Morris, 53, said.
“We’re benevolent capitalists, building a benevolent economy,” said Mr. Clemenson, 34, a co-founder of Lottery.com, which is using the blockchain in lotteries. “Puerto Rico has been this hidden gem, this enchanted island that’s been consistently overlooked and mistreated. Maybe 500 years later we can make it right.”
Other Puertopians arrived on the roof as a pack, just back from a full-day property-hunting bus tour. From the middle, Brock Pierce, 37, the leader of the Puertopia movement, emerged wearing drop crotch capri pants, a black vest that almost hit his knees and a large black felt hat. He and others had arrived on the island in early December.
“Compassion, respect, financial transparency,” Mr. Pierce said when asked what was guiding them here.
Mr. Pierce, the director of the Bitcoin Foundation, is a major figure in the crypto boom. He co-founded a blockchain-for-business start-up, Block.One, which has sold around $200 million of a custom virtual currency, EOS, in a so-called initial coin offering. The value of all the outstanding EOS tokens is around $6.5 billion.
A former child actor, Mr. Pierce got into digital money early as a professional gamer, mining and trading gold in the video game World of Warcraft, an effort funded partly by Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump adviser. Mr. Pierce is a controversial figure — he has previously been sued for fraud, among other matters.
Downstairs, in the Monastery penthouse, a dozen or so other expats were hanging out. The water was out that night, so the toilets and faucets were dry. Mr. Minor lounged on an alcove chaise.
“The U.S. doesn’t want us. It’s trying to choke off this economy,” Mr. Minor said, referring to the difficulties that crypto investors have with American banks. “There needs to be a place where people are free to invent.”
Mr. Pierce paced the room with his hands in fists. A few times a day, he played a video for the group on his phone and a portable speaker: Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 “The Great Dictator,” in which Chaplin parodies Hitler rallying his forces. He finds inspiration in lines like “More than machinery, we need humanity.”
“I’m worried people are going to misinterpret our actions,” Mr. Pierce said. “That we’re just coming to Puerto Rico to dodge taxes.”
He said he was aiming to create a charitable token called ONE with $1 billion of his own money. “If you take the MY out of money, you’re left with ONE,” Mr. Pierce said.
“He’s tuned in to a higher calling,” said Kai Nygard, scion of the Canadian clothing company Nygard and a crypto investor. “He’s beyond money.”
The force of Mr. Pierce’s personality and his spiritual presence are important to the group, whose members are otherwise largely agnostic. Mr. Pierce regularly performs rituals. Earlier that day while scoping out property, they had stopped at a historic Ceiba tree, known as the Tree of Life.
“Brock nestled into the bosom of it and was there for 10 minutes,” Mr. Nygard said.
Mr. Pierce walked around the tree and said prayers for Puertopia, holding a rusted wrench he had picked up in the territory. He kissed an old man’s feet. He blessed a crystal in the water, as they all watched. He played the Chaplin speech to everyone and to the tree, Mr. Nygard said.
That wrench is now in the penthouse, heavy and greasy.
Later on, at a dinner in a nearby restaurant, the group ordered platters of octopus arms, fried cheese, ceviche and rum cocktails. They began debating whether to buy Puerto Rico’s Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which measures 9,000 acres and has two deepwater ports and an adjacent airport. The only hitch: It’s a Superfund cleanup site.
Mr. Pierce had fallen asleep by then, his hat tilted down and arms crossed. He gets two hours of sleep many nights, often on a firm grounding mat to stay in contact with the earth’s electric energy. Josh Boles, a tall, athletic man who is another crypto expat, picked him up, and the group headed back to the Monastery.
They walked past a big pink building in an old town square, the start of their vision for Puertopia’s downtown. Once a children’s museum, they plan on making it a crypto clubhouse and outreach center that will have the mission “to bring together Puerto Ricans with Puertopians.”
Workdays are casual in Puertopia. One morning, Bryan Larkin, 39, and Reeve Collins, 42, were working at another old hotel, the Condado Vanderbilt, where they had their laptops on a pool bar with frozen piña coladas on tap.
“We’re going to make this crypto land,” Mr. Larkin said.
Mr. Larkin has mined about $2 billion in Bitcoin and is the chief technology officer of Blockchain Industries, a publicly traded company based in Puerto Rico.
Mr. Collins, an internet veteran, had raised more than $20 million from an initial coin offering for BlockV, his app store for the blockchain, whose outstanding tokens are worth about $125 million. He had also co-founded Tether, which backs cryptocurrency tied to the value of a dollar and whose outstanding tokens are worth about $2.1 billion, though the company has generated enormous controversy in the virtual currency world.
“So, no. No, I don’t want to pay taxes,” Mr. Collins said. “This is the first time in human history anyone other than kings or governments or gods can create their own money.”
He had moved from Santa Monica, Calif., with just a few bags and was now starting a local cryptocurrency incubator called Vatom Factory.
“When Brock said, ‘We’re moving to Puerto Rico for the taxes and to create this new town,’ I said, ‘I’m in,'” Mr. Collins said. “Sight unseen.”
They soon went back to work, checking out Coinmarketcap.com, a site that shows the price of cryptocurrencies.
“Our market cap’s gone up $100 million in a week,” Mr. Collins said.
“Congrats, man,” Mr. Larkin said.
José Jiménez-Tirado | The New York Times
Brock Pierce, center, with Josh Boles, left, and Matt Clemenson on the roof of the Monastery Art Suites, which they have rented out as a headquarters for their cryptocurrency business, in San Juan, in Puerto Rico, on Jan. 3, 2018.
All across San Juan, many locals are trying to figure out what to do with the crypto arrivals.
Some are open to the new wave as a welcome infusion of investment and ideas.
“We’re open for crypto business,” said Erika Medina-Vecchini, the chief business development officer for the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, in an interview at her office. She said her office was starting an ad campaign aimed at the new crypto expat boom, with the tagline “Paradise Performs.”
Others worry about the island’s being used for an experiment and talk about “crypto colonialism.” At a house party in San Juan, Richard Lopez, 32, who runs a pizza restaurant, Estella, in the town of Arecibo, said: “I think it’s great. Lure them in with taxes, and they’ll spend money.”
Andria Satz, 33, who grew up in Old San Juan and works for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, disagreed.
“We’re the tax playground for the rich,” she said. “We’re the test case for anyone who wants to experiment. Outsiders get tax exemptions, and locals can’t get permits.”
Mr. Lopez said the territory needed something to jump-start the economy. “We have to find a new way,” he said.
“Sure then, Bitcoin, why not,” Ms. Satz said, throwing up her hands.
Mr. Lopez said he and a childhood friend, Rafael Perez, 31, were trying to set up a Bitcoin mine in their hometown. But electricity has been inconsistent, and mining even a single Bitcoin takes a lot of power, he said.
The mission for the Federal Emergency Management Agency was clear: Hurricane Maria had torn through Puerto Rico, and hungry people needed food. Thirty million meals needed to be delivered as soon as possible.
For this huge task, FEMA tapped Tiffany Brown, an Atlanta entrepreneur with no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past. FEMA awarded her $156 million for the job, and Ms. Brown, who is the sole owner and employee of her company, Tribute Contracting LLC, set out to find some help.
Ms. Brown, who is adept at navigating the federal contracting system, hired a wedding caterer in Atlanta with a staff of 11 to freeze-dry wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup. She found a nonprofit in Texas that had shipped food aid overseas and domestically, including to a Houston food bank after Hurricane Harvey.
By the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000. And FEMA inspectors discovered a problem: The food had been packaged separately from the pouches used to heat them. FEMA’s solicitation required “self-heating meals.”
“Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated,” Carolyn Ward, the FEMA contracting officer who handled Tribute’s agreement, wrote to Ms. Brown in an email dated Oct. 19 that Ms. Brown provided to The New York Times. “This is a logistical nightmare.”
Four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, a picture is emerging of the contracts awarded in the earliest days of the crisis. And examples like the Tribute contract are causing lawmakers to raise questions about FEMA’s handling of the disaster and whether the agency was adequately prepared to respond.
On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, which has been investigating the contract, asked Representative Trey Gowdy, the committee chairman, to subpoena FEMA for all documents relating to the agreement. Lawmakers fear the agency is not lining up potential contractors in advance of natural disasters, leading it to scramble to award multimillion-dollar agreements in the middle of a crisis.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a bipartisan congressional investigation found that a failure to secure advance contracts led to chaos and potential for waste and fraud. Democrats asserted that FEMA was similarly inept preparing for this storm.
“It appears that the Trump Administration’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico in 2017 suffered from the same flaws as the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” wrote Representatives Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland and Stacey E. Plaskett, the nonvoting delegate from the United States Virgin Islands.
Amanda Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Mr. Gowdy, said FEMA has given the Oversight Committee regular briefings since lawmakers asked for them in October, and at no point had Democrats mentioned the Tribute contract. Sending a subpoena to an agency cooperating with Congress “is premature,” Ms. Gonzalez said in a statement.
In November, The Associated Press found that after Hurricane Maria, FEMA awarded more than $30 million in contracts for emergency tarps and plastic sheeting to a company that never delivered the needed supplies.
FEMA insists no Puerto Ricans missed a meal as a result of the failed agreement with Tribute. FEMA relied on other suppliers that provided “ample” food and water for distribution, said William Booher, an agency spokesman.
But there is little doubt that in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans struggled with access to food. The storm shut down ports on an island that imports about 85 percent of its food supply. Farms were flattened. Supermarkets lost electricity and could not find diesel to run their generators. The stores that opened using generator power could not offer much from their understocked shelves.
Puerto Ricans depended heavily on emergency aid dispatched by FEMA. The Department of Homeland Security has doled out more than $1 billion in contracts related to Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.
On Oct. 3, FEMA awarded one of its largest food contracts to Tribute. For $5.10 each, the company agreed to provide 30 million ready-to-eat meals by Oct. 23.
Ms. Brown described herself in an interview as a government contractor — “almost like a broker,” she said — who does not keep employees or specialize in any field but is able to procure subcontracted work as needed, and get a cut of the money along the way. She claims a fashion line and has several self-published books, and describes herself on Twitter as “A Diva, Mogul, Author, Idealist with scars to prove it.”
After Tribute’s failure to provide the meals became clear, FEMA formally terminated the contract for cause, citing Tribute’s late delivery of approved meals. Ms. Brown is disputing the termination. On Dec. 22, she filed an appeal, arguing that the real reason FEMA canceled her contract was because the meals were packed separately from the heating pouches, not because of their late delivery. Ms. Brown claims the agency did not specify that the meals and heaters had to be together.
She is seeking a settlement of at least $70 million. Her subcontractors, Cooking With A Star LLC, and Breedlove Foods Inc., have threatened to sue her for breach of contract, Ms. Brown said. Kendra Robinson, the caterer who runs Cooking With A Star, said she has about 75,000 meals her company prepared for FEMA sitting in an Atlanta warehouse.
In a statement, FEMA said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on a contract pending an appeal. But the agency noted it continues to provide meals to Puerto Ricans, despite an error by an agency spokesman last week that suggested the emergency aid would stop.
“At the time of the contract termination there were ample commodity supplies in the pipeline, and distribution was not affected,” said Mr. Booher, the agency spokesman. “During the 2017 hurricane season FEMA sourced over 200 million meals through multiple vendors in order to support disaster response activities across multiple disasters.”
Tribute has been awarded dozens of government contracts since 2013, including one in 2015 for $1.2 million in mattresses for the Defense Logistics Agency, which supports military combat troops, federal spending databases show. Tribute delivered the mattresses, according to the agency. The databases offer only a fragmented picture of federal contracts.
The government has also canceled Tribute contracts on at least five occasions.
Four cancellations involved the Federal Prison System, which found that Tribute failed to deliver meat, bakery, cereal and other food products to various correctional institutions. A fifth termination involved the Government Publishing Office, which terminated a contract for 3,000 tote bags after Tribute failed to print the Marine Corps logo on both sides of the bags.
An investigation by the office’s inspector general found that Tribute “altered and submitted a false shipping document and subcontracted the predominant production function on two contracts without proper authorization,” according to a 2015 report submitted to Congress.
The report did not name Tribute, but a Government Publishing Office spokesman confirmed that it was the Georgia company mentioned in the document. The office awarded Tribute 14 contracts totaling more than $80,000 from 2014-15, and the company “routinely delivered late,” the report said.
As a result of the botched tote-bag job, the Government Publishing Office prohibited the award of any contracts over $35,000 to Tribute until January 2019. But that exclusion applied only to that office, not to any other federal agency.
Tribute has had three indefinite contracts with FEMA for hygiene kits since 2013, but none of them have been activated.
Asked about the cancellations, Ms. Brown offered explanations for each case, including that she had supplier trouble with the prison meals. She could have fought the Government Publishing Office on the tote bags contract, she said, but could not afford to at the time.
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee say Tribute’s contract history should have given FEMA serious pause about awarding the company a huge food contract.
“Clearly, Tribute did not have sufficient financial resources of its own to support this contract,” they wrote. “Based on Tribute’s lack of experience in large-scale disaster relief and its limited financial capacity, FEMA should have raised serious questions about whether the company could meet the contract terms — especially since the contract concerned such a critical need.”
Ms. Brown said she had no doubt she could have provided the 30 million meals, though she estimated she would have needed until at least Nov. 7 — two weeks past FEMA’s deadline, and still an unlikely completion date, given Tribute’s pace of delivery by the time the contract was canceled.
“They probably should have gone with someone else, but I’m assuming they did not because this was the third hurricane” after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Ms. Brown said. “They were trying to fill the orders the best they could.”
Puerto Ricans face foreclosure wave as moratoriums expire
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Aylsa Torres sighed in relief when she received a letter from her bank two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. She was among the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans awarded a three-month moratorium on their mortgage payments as the U.S. territory reeled from the storm’s destruction.
Believing she was temporarily freed from those financial obligations, the 46-year-old government worker drained her savings to pay for a $750 generator and $786 worth of repairs for storm damage. But when Torres visited her bank in December, she says, she was shocked to hear that she was behind on payments and that officials threatened to foreclose on her apartment and ruin her credit rating.
Confusion and panic is spreading across this U.S. territory as the majority of moratorium agreements expire this month, with many people discovering they never qualified for the moratorium in the first place or struggling to obtain extensions because they cannot pay what is owed to the banks.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Torres said. “You feel like everyone is closing a door in your face. No one has a genuine interest in helping you.”
Legal experts say it is a scene that will repeat itself in the coming weeks and months on an island that already was seeing a sharp rise in foreclosures before the hurricane as a result of an 11-year-old recession that has forced government austerity measures.
Even worse, experts say, many Puerto Ricans stopped making payments on their mortgages after the Sept. 20 storm because they thought the moratorium was automatic, when it was not. The storm knocked out power across the island, the largest blackout in U.S. history, preventing many from learning that they had to contact their bank to request a moratorium, said Ariadna Godreau, a professor and human rights lawyer.
“The big concern now is that mortgage foreclosures are going to spike,” she said. “We’re going to see more homeless people, more homes foreclosed.”
Over almost a decade, the number of repossessed homes in Puerto Rico grew from more than 2,300 in 2008 to above 5,400 in 2016 and an estimated 6,200 or more last year.
After the storm, foreclosures were temporarily suspended, and banks in the U.S. territory offered a moratorium on mortgages for those who qualified, as did the federal government. Moratoriums offered by the U.S. government have been extended to March, but banks have ended theirs.
Banco Popular, which is Puerto Rico’s largest bank, said more than 20,500 clients received moratoriums that expired in December and January. Bank executives say they are working with their clients, but stress that they still need to collect what is owed.
“Those clients that truly are not responding to the bank’s letters are those who really will be at risk of facing a foreclosure,” said Jose Teruel, first vice president of the consumer credit services division at Banco Popular.
Other large Puerto Rico banks declined to provide specific numbers. Oriental said only that 69 percent of its home loans were under moratorium by the end of November, while First Bank said about half of its clients were given moratoriums. Santander said 123,000 of its accounts, including both mortgages and personal and commercial loans, received moratoriums expiring in December and January.
“The three-month moratorium might have seemed generous at first, but in reality, it’s not,” said Maria Jimenez, director of the legal services clinic at the University of Puerto Rico. “There are still people without power, so the ability to generate revenue is not there.”
More than 30,000 jobs were lost after Hurricane Maria, and some 30 percent of small and medium-size businesses remain closed more than four months after the storm, according to the island’s Treasury Department. Meanwhile, more than 30 percent of power customers remain in the dark and many struggle to pay rising utility bills.
Jimenez especially worries about people who cannot afford an attorney but make enough money to be disqualified from free legal services.
“A lot of times these people just freeze,” she said. “There are many who don’t even open the (bank) letters because they have no way to solve the situation.”
Torres has hired a lawyer to handle her case, not an easy decision since most of her salary goes toward costly medication to treat her multiple sclerosis. She owes the bank more than $1,500 and is at a loss over how to pay.
Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions said it is collecting more information to better understand the situation. It recently extended a deadline for all banks on the island to submit data, including exactly how many moratoriums were awarded.
It is unclear how banks will handle the mortgages, said Rafael Rodriguez, who oversees a legal aid project involving foreclosures for the nonprofit Legal Services of Puerto Rico. “The expectation we have is that once the moratoriums expire, the massive wave of foreclosures on the island will continue,” he said.
Another woman caught in the mortgage crunch said she doesn’t have the money to make all three payments she owes her bank this month. The woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Lillian, because she is embarrassed by her situation, said she used all her savings after the hurricane to get up to date on her mortgage payments so she could qualify for the moratorium. But those payments have left her dependent entirely on her parents for now.
She fears she will have to give up her apartment. “I am incredibly worried,” she said.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — One of Puerto Rico’s deadliest months in recent years has closed, with 78 killings reported in January as the U.S. territory struggles with a surge in violent crime and growing discontent among thousands of police officers.
The killings included a 20-year-old woman found kneeling and burned to death inside a car in the upscale city of Guaynabo and a triple homicide reported in the eastern mountain town of San Lorenzo.
Puerto Rico’s homicide rate is roughly 20 killings per 100,000 residents, compared with 3.7 per 100,000 residents on the U.S. mainland.
“I’m gravely concerned about these violent incidents reported in recent days,” said Sen. Miguel Laureano. “It’s a dramatic situation that requires immediate attention.”
The majority of people killed last month were young men shot to death. The central mountain town of Caguas reported the highest number of homicides at 18, followed by the capital of San Juan with 14.
Police have issued warrants or arrested suspects in only a handful of the cases. On Thursday, authorities asked the public for help in solving the case of the young woman found burned inside the car. Police said they believe she was on her way to pick up a family member the day she was killed.
Hector Pesquera, head of Puerto Rico’s newly created Department of Public Safety, has said most of the killings in January were tied to drugs but added that there was “no rhyme or reason” to explain the surge.
In mid-January, local and federal officials announced they would implement a “broken windows” policing campaign to help reduce the number of killings. The plan is to crack down on all types of violations, including traffic infractions and illegal tints on car windows, to help get criminals off the street and prevent bigger crimes.
The increase in killings came weeks after thousands of police officers began calling in sick daily to protest millions of dollars owed in overtime pay following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Absences have returned to the normal daily average, Pesquera says, but thousands of police officers are still upset about austerity measures, including a sharp reduction in their monthly pensions and an end to being able to cash in unused sick days.
Puerto Rico Rep. Felix Lassalle, president of the commission of public security, is holding public hearings to address those issues.
“There’s a big commitment … to address situations that can affect police officers and find solutions,” he said.
Last year, Puerto Rico reported an overall drop in killings with 679 homicides compared with 700 in 2016.
Puerto Rico Experiences an Agricultural Renaissance
by Associated Press / / Source: Associated Press
This Sept. 23, 2016 photo shows a produce stand at La Placita de Santurce farmers’ market that sells mostly locally grown produce in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory is seeing something of an agricultural renaissance as new farms spring up across the island, supplying an increasing number of farmers’ markets and restaurants as consumers demand fresher produce. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)Carlos Giusti / AP
For the first time in nearly 30 years, Puerto Ricans are buying rice, vegetables and traditional crops such as plantains and pineapples, that are produced on the island.
As new farms spring across the island, the U.S. territory is seeing something of an agricultural renaissance, supplying an increasing number of restaurants and farmers’ markets to meet consumer demand for fresher produce.
The island continues to struggle from a 10-year recession and a still-unfolding debt crisis yet farming is one of the areas that has provided growth for Puerto Rico. From recent statistics provided by the governor’s office farm income grew 25 percent to more than $900 million in 2012-2014. The amount of acreage under cultivation rose 50 percent over the past four years, generating at least 7,000 jobs.
“More and more people have noticed that this is one of the only successful ways of living on the island right now,” said Tara Rodriguez Besosa, a farming advocate and owner of an organic restaurant in San Juan that buys from local farms, including one started by her mother several years ago.
Agriculture is a small part of the economy in Puerto Rico, well behind manufacturing, finance and tourism. Yet the growth is notable simply because things are so bad overall. Many businesses have closed, tens of thousands of people have decamped to the U.S. mainland, unemployment is at nearly 12 percent and the government is in default.
The agricultural rebirth can be seen in the aisles of supermarkets, where local rice went on sale in August for the first time since the last producer closed in 1989, and in the shimmering green fields where the grain is grown on the outskirts of the southwestern town of Guanica.
The government helped launch Finca Fraternidad, or “Fraternity Farm,” by providing 1,350 acres of vacant public land.
The rice venture is one of about 350 farms that the government supported to reduce Puerto Rico’s reliance on expensive food imports and spur the growth of a sector that dominated the economy until the 1940s, when the territory began a decades-long transformation into a more urban, developed society where few wanted to work on farms.
“It’s satisfying to change the perspective of an island that once viewed agriculture as a thing of the past, as something for people without education,” Puerto Rican Agriculture Secretary Myrna Comas said.
In the west and the south, the government has launched a project to supply the local rum industry with homegrown sugarcane, which dominated the economy in the 19th century but all but disappeared as it became cheaper to produce elsewhere. About 870 acres of cane have been planted so far, and Comas said the plan is to expand to 11,600 acres.
Bayer, the German medicine and farm-chemical maker, announced this month that it would spend $17 million to develop two agriculture biotech facilities in the U.S. territory. Monsanto, the Missouri-based seed and weed-killer company, has large fields of corn, soy and cotton in Puerto Rico and recently invested $5 million in its projects.
Following a 2015 executive order legalizing medical marijuana derivatives, GreenVision LLC, a subsidiary of Nevada-based StereoVision Entertainment Inc., announced plans in August to build a 40,000-square-foot (3,700-square-meter) cultivation and manufacturing facility in Puerto Rico.
But it’s the small-scale farming that is most visible to consumers.
The number of farmers’ markets has tripled in the past four years to more than a dozen across the island, said Mayra Nieves, president of a local nonprofit organic food cooperative. That has quadrupled overall business to some $35 million a year, spurred in large part by interest in organic produce, Comas said.
There are also urban community gardens popping up across the capital that cater to people who want something fresher than the shrink-wrapped imports that have long been standard at stores and restaurants.
“People are becoming more open-minded,” Nieves said. “They no longer see us as ‘those hippies.'”
These are the type of things that happen when you run out of other people’s money. You cannot afford to pay your police officers. You cannot expect them to work for free, can you? So they stop working as many hours, staging a “sickout.” So crime increases as murderers know they are far less likely to get caught since not as many police are working. So Puerto Rico continues in a downward spiral.
Similarly, Venezuelans voted Socialist/leftists like Chavez and Maduro into power, taking that country into a death spiral. Why must Puerto Ricans not learn from history, making similar mistakes by voting for politicians who promise the most free stuff? That “free stuff” isn’t free!
CAROLINA, Puerto Rico (AP) — Before the sun rose on the first day of 2018, someone called 911 to report the charred, bullet-riddled body of a man with a snake-like tattoo on his left hand, lying beside a road in the Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja.
The next day, two men were found dead with their feet and hands bound in Bayamon, a working-class city southwest of the capital. Another man was shot to death before dawn in nearby Vega Baja while trying to stop thieves from stealing his generator.
Thirty-two people have been slain in Puerto Rico in the first 11 days of the year, double the number killed over the same period in 2017. If the surge proves to be more than just a temporary blip, January could be the most homicidal month on the island in at least two years, adding a dangerous new element to the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, its worst disaster in decades.
While the number of homicides did not immediately spike in the weeks after the hurricane struck on Sept. 20, police and independent experts say many killings appear at least partly related to its aftereffects.
The storm has plunged much of the island into darkness, increased economic hardship and contributed to a sickout by police, all fueling lawlessness. What’s more, officials say a turf war has broken out among drug gangs looking to grab territory after the storm’s disruption.
“Hurricanes affect everyone, including criminals,” said criminologist Jose Raul Cepeda.
Already bankrupt, the island’s overwhelmed government has fallen behind with millions of dollars in overtime payments owed to police officers, who have begun calling in sick in big numbers to protest. The sickout has taken about 2,000 police off the street each day in a territory that has 13,600 officers. It has forced more than a dozen police stations to close for several hours to a couple of days during the holiday period because of a lack of officers. No arrests have been made in the 32 killings this year.
Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm, destroyed much of the island’s electrical grid. For those police on duty, the streets are darker and more dangerous because power has been restored to only 60 percent of customers in the U.S. territory. Drug gangs are fighting to re-establish territory they lost in the disruption from Maria, which pushed thousands from their homes and left entire neighborhoods uninhabitable for weeks.
Police Chief Michelle Hernandez resigned Monday after only a year on the job, and local and federal authorities are rushing from meeting to meeting to debate how to best protect 3.3 million Puerto Ricans, especially those still living in the dark.
“This has been devastating,” said Ramon Santiago, a retiree who lives less than a block from where three bodies were discovered Sunday near a basketball court. “You can’t sleep peacefully in so much darkness.”
Puerto Rico’s homicide rate is roughly 20 killings per 100,000 residents, compared with 3.7 per 100,000 residents on the U.S. mainland. In the last two years, Puerto Rico has seen an average of 56 homicides a month, a rate that held through December. Then after New Year’s, the killings started accelerating.
A man was shot Jan. 3 by a security guard while trying to rob a bakery. Two double homicides were reported Jan. 8 — two men found shot to death in a car near an upscale resort on the north coast and two other men discovered sprawled on the street near a public housing complex on the west coast. Five killings alone were reported Monday, in addition to three people wounded by gunfire during a shootout that night in the parking lot of a strip mall in Bayamon. This week, police say, the son of a former judge was killed after trying to write down the license plate number of a car whose occupants were firing a gun.
“The lack of police is increasing Puerto Rico’s safety issues,” said legislator Denis Marquez, who was mugged at gunpoint last month. “Everybody is feeling that insecurity.”
Besides policing and getting the lights back on, he said, the government needs to address long-standing issues such as social inequality on an island with a 10 percent unemployment rate, where nearly 45 percent of its inhabitants lived in poverty before the hurricane.
More immediately, the post-storm conditions have fueled a deadly struggle over drug gang territory, said Fernando Soler, vice president of a police officers’ advocacy group.
“There’s a war over the control for drugs,” he told The Associated Press. “They are taking advantage of all the situations occurring in Puerto Rico. There’s no power and they believe there’s a lack of police officers. … Criminals are taking care of business that was pending before the hurricane.”
Inspector Elexis Torres heads a unit that is investigating eight homicides in a jurisdiction that includes the working-class city of Carolina near Puerto Rico’s north coast, bordering the island’s main airport.
One of Puerto Rico’s largest cities with nearly 160,000 people, Carolina had the triple homicide reported Sunday; a motel employee and a friend were found slain Tuesday in neighboring Trujillo Alto. Like nearly all the killings this year, they involve men in their 20s who were shot to death. Torres said he suspects both cases are drug related.
He worries the number of killings will only increase as criminal gangs enter into cycles of revenge.
“Those victims likely belonged to some organization,” Torres said of the triple homicide. “This can have consequences.”
Cepeda, the criminologist, said drug traffickers have been entering rival territories to increase sales and recover losses after the storm disrupted their business.
Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $95 billion in damage, with 30,000-plus jobs lost in an economy that was already struggling from an 11-year-old recession.
The last time Puerto Rico saw a spike in violent crime was in 2011, when a record 1,136 killings were reported on an island of nearly 4 million people. Puerto Rico had seen a drop in killings, to 700 in 2016 and 679 last year.
Hector Pesquera, secretary of the newly created Department of Public Safety, met this week with top police officials and federal authorities.
“We’re in a process of analysis and of committed work to fight criminality in Puerto Rico,” he said.