Puerto Rico’s Drug Pipeline
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad reported in Puerto Rico for the Social Justice News Nexus, with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. This photo essay is part of a larger piece about a Puerto Rico to Chicago pipeline of rehab services.
Puerto Rico has increasingly become a gateway for drug traffickers to bring cocaine, heroin and other drugs from the Caribbean and Latin America to the mainland U.S. With a depressed economy and a shredded social safety net, drug addiction has become an increasingly serious problem in Puerto Rico, with residents struggling to access rehab services. There have long been close economic and social ties between Chicago and Puerto Rico, hence the drug situation in Puerto Rico has direct implications for Chicago as many Puerto Ricans come to the city seeking treatment.
The community of La Perla sits on the north shore of Old San Juan overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. The neighborhood has been known as a hub for the illegal drug market in San Juan but residents are slowly trying to change that image by organizing local activities and inviting elected officials to interact with residents.
The Governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García-Padilla (in red), played basketball with local residents from La Perla on Friday June 13, 2014. After the game, he walked across the neighborhood and shook hands with residents. García-Padilla says about 92 percent of the illegal drugs that enter Puerto Rico are on their way to the United States.
He says there is a great battle in Puerto Rico to gain control over the remaining eight percent of the drugs that end up staying on the Island. He says drug-related murders have decreased substantially, but the numbers are still high, most of them related to narco-trafficking and drug addiction.
Local residents are fighting to improve the living conditions in La Perla. They say for decades the community has been known for its drug trade and ongoing violence. But as I saw on recent visits there, the community also has a wealth of human resources and a spirit of resistance.
That spirit was shown a few years ago when residents came together to build what’’s known as The Bowl, a vertical ramp that becomes a pool during the day.Residents in this tight-knit community recently launched their own newspaper called, periódico informativo, La Perla. They are also organizing a 5 kilometer run for the fall, meant to invite people from outside their neighborhood in hopes of changing the negative image that has cast a shadow over their community.
Medical students from the University of Puerto Rico are part of an initiative called Recinto Pa’’ la Calle, which means From the Campus to the Streets. The group is supported by Iniciativa Comunitaria, a nonprofit agency that offers medical services to drug users in Puerto Rico including HIV prevention through needle exchange drives, rehab and detox services and outreach to users in the streets of San Juan and other municipalities. People who use needles to inject heroin can easily develop skin ulcers that often need medical attention. While the ulcers may not be cured, the medical treatment provided by the students can lower the risk of bacterial infections for patients like Benjamin (pictured).
Recinto Pa’’ la Calle was born after a group of medical students noticed that a large portion of the homeless population in San Juan concentrated around the medical center, many of them with ongoing medical needs that went untreated. For Sahily Reyes, one of the medical students who volunteers on Monday nights, this was a dramatic picture. According to Reyes, navigating the healthcare system in Puerto Rico is complicated and inaccessible, and many people living in the streets don’’t have access to basic medical care. ““Somebody is sick, in front of a hospital that he cannot go in,”” she said. ““And so we felt like we had to do something about it.””
Every Monday night, Medical students from the University of Puerto Rico go out around the medical district in San Juan, an area home to a large population of drug users. Most of the people they reach out to need food, clothing and medical assistance.
Juncos and Caguas
The city of Caguas and the adjacent town of Juncos have been hard hit by drugs. Caguas police frequently deal with drug users, often trying to refer them to services, though a dearth of services exist. A neighborhood called Barriada Morales in Caguas is known for an illegal drug business that includes the selling and distribution of substances like heroin, crack and cocaine. Dealing with drug abuse is a major challenge for the Alcaldia (municipal leadership) of Juncos, like other Puerto Rican towns. Police officials both from Juncos and Caguas said a few years ago their municipalities saw a raft of copper theft, which they attribute the crimes to drug users looking to make some cash.
Ultimately Governor García-Padilla stresses that the drug problem in Puerto Rico is also a problem of the mainland U.S., fueled by U.S. drug demand and compounded by economic challenges and results of the war on drugs. Bringing together people on the mainland and in Puerto Rico and showing the human faces of Puerto Rico’’s drug problem are ways to start addressing this major tragedy and crisis.
Photos and text by Adriana Cardona-Maguigad.
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