[News] ACLU Asks Justice Department To Intervene In Serious Human Rights Abuses In Puerto Rico

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Notitas De Noticias

Saturday March 12, 2011


ACLU Asks Justice Department To Intervene In 
Serious Human Rights Abuses In Puerto Rico

Published at 1:34 am, March 12, 2011

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter 
to the Department of Justice (DOJ) today urging 
it to intervene in serious human rights and civil 
liberties abuses reported to be occurring against 
the people of Puerto Rico at the hands of the 
territory’s government. The ACLU asked that DOJ 
conclude its ongoing investigation of allegations 
of serious incidents of police violence and the 
suppression of free expression – including 
numerous reports of violent attacks against 
peaceful protesters and racially motivated police 
abuse – and take action to end these egregious practices.

“At a time when our nation is riveted by the 
power of peaceful demonstrations and their 
importance to our democracy, the horrific abuses 
reported to be taking place in Puerto Rico have 
flown too far under the radar,” said Anthony D. 
Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil 
Liberties Union. “It is nothing short of shocking 
to think that these breathtaking incidents could 
occur unchecked in America [sic], and any abuses must be stopped.”

According to the letter signed by Romero, police 
abuse has escalated and free expression has been 
under threat since Gov. Luis Fortuño came into 
power two years ago. University students at 
peaceful protests have been subjected to violent 
attacks and arrest, while female students have 
been inappropriately touched by police officers 
during the protests. Government proceedings have 
been closed to the public and protesters at the 
legislature have been pepper sprayed, beaten and 
shot at by police. Tens of thousands of workers 
have been fired and their criticism of government policies repressed.

The ACLU’s letter, addressed to Assistant 
Attorney General Thomas Perez, details many 
examples of allegations of police abuse and speech suppression, including:

• violence against student protesters, with 
students being beaten, maced, shot at with rubber 
bullets and sexually assaulted by police;

• violence against protesters on the steps of the 
legislature after government proceedings were closed to the public;

• racially-motivated beatings of members of 
minority communities by police officers;

• the execution of a man lying on the ground 
following an argument with a police officer over a traffic violation;

• the unsolved murder of a man of African-Puerto 
Rican descent, suspected to be an extrajudicial killing by police officers;

• the fabrication of drug-related charges against 
over 100 residents of a housing project in the city of Mayaguez;

• the violent and inhumane eviction of members of 
the Villas del Sol squatter community, including 
the denial of fresh water to the community for eight months;

• numerous incidents of abuse of the homeless by police officers; and

• the de-certification of the Puerto Rico Bar 
Association and legal action against bar members 
designed to stifle political dissent.

The letter concludes: “[T]hese allegations raise 
troubling questions about the Puerto Rican 
government’s commitment to the human rights of 
its citizens and the First Amendment’s 
protections of freedom of assembly, expression 
and the right to petition the government. We hope 
that DOJ will soon conclude its investigation and 
intervene into these unconstitutional practices.”

The letter called on the Civil Rights Division of 
the DOJ to release a report of its findings.

The full text of the letter to the Department of Justice can be found below:

March 10, 2011

Mr. Thomas E. Perez
Assistant Attorney General
Civil Rights Division
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Re: DOJ Investigation into allegations of abuses 
by the Puerto Rico Police Department

Dear Assistant Attorney General Perez:

As you know, beginning around May 2008, the ACLU 
of Puerto Rico began reporting allegations of a 
pattern and practice of violent police misconduct 
against the citizens of Puerto Rico to the 
Department of Justice. These incidents have 
increased both in their frequency and intensity 
and other recent actions also raise troubling 
questions about the Puerto Rican government’s 
commitment to First Amendment protections. We are 
writing today to urge you to bring your team’s 
investigation to a close and issue your report 
and findings. We hope that DOJ will soon be able 
to intervene and provide some remedies to help 
end the Puerto Rico Police Department’s abuse against the Puerto Rican people.

While we understand you have been briefed on this 
investigation, for background purposes, a few of 
the allegations of abuses bear repeating:

•Villa Cañona:
Between 2007 and 2008, residents of Villa Cañona, 
in the town of Loiza, Puerto Rico, an 
African-Puerto Rican community dating back 
hundreds of years, were victims of police 
aggression, which were, in part, racially 
motivated. Residents became prisoners of their 
own community. The ACLU denounced the ongoing 
abuses, while taking on the case of Evelyn 
Rivera, a single parent of two minors, one of 
whom is afflicted by severe brain damage. This 
Villa Cañona family was a victim of abuse on three different occasions.

•Miguel Caceres case:
In October 2007, a police officer executed a man 
in the town of Humacao, Puerto Rico, during an 
argument between Caceres and the police officer 
over a traffic violation. Caceres was shot four 
times to the back in broad daylight while he lay 
on the sidewalk. Many citizens looked on and the incident was filmed.

•Jorge Polaco de Jesús case:
Also in October 2007, police officers shot to 
death a young 26 year old man of African-Puerto 
Rican descent; a resident of Carolina, Puerto 
Rico. The precinct involved is the very same 
implicated in the Villa Cañona community abuses. 
Mr. Polaco was taken away by the officers, 
allegedly to get the young man immediate 
assistance at a hospital located five minutes 
away. He arrived at the hospital DOA one and a 
half hours later, with 7 bullet wounds to the 
back and one bullet to the front left shoulder. 
The circumstances of Jorge Polaco’s death suggest 
an extrajudicial execution, but no official local 
or federal investigation has been conducted, 
despite ongoing requests. One of the two officers 
was transferred and has very recently been 
implicated in the coma-inducing beating of 
another citizen. The second officer left the 
jurisdiction within a month and is now an officer in a southern state.

•Mayaguez false prosecution cases:
In 2007, a group of police officers were found to 
have fabricated drug-related charges against many 
residents of a housing project in the City of 
Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. While an FBI sting put 
several of these officers behind bars, the 
practice continues. It is believed that over 100 
citizens are still behind bars as a result of these fabricated cases.

•Dominican Community claims of police abuse 
(known incidents 2008 through the present):
Dominican leaders, the ACLU, and other civil 
rights advocates, have for many years denounced 
incidents of extreme police abuse motivated by 
national origin and racial profiling in several 
locations known to be predominantly Dominican 
communities, specifically in the Santurce sector of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

•Villas del Sol Community human rights abuses (2009 – 2010):
The government attempted to forcefully evict the 
residents of Villas del Sol, a squatter community 
comprised mostly of indigent families of 
Dominican origin. Police officers violently 
attacked members of the community, which mainly 
consisted of female heads of households and 
children, beating them, using pepper spray, 
tasers and in some cases tossing the women over 
concrete barriers. The water was also turned off 
for approximately eight months, while two 
epidemics simultaneously afflicted Puerto Rico – 
the AH1N1 virus and the Dengue hemorrhagic fever. 
After the situation was brought to the attention 
of the Department of Justice and the 
Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the 
Puerto Rican government reinstalled the community’s running water supply.

•Police abuse against the homeless population 
(known incidents 2008 through 2010):

The police have engaged in many incidents of 
abuse against the homeless community, including 
obstructing a federally funded needle exchange 
program and arresting and physically abusing its 
participants. Many of the homeless are beaten, 
maced, and later charged with possession of drug 
paraphernalia or violation of municipal 
ordinances. The ACLU has also exposed the 
practice of humiliating the homeless, stripping 
them naked, and taking them out of town, 
sometimes in unmarked cars, and dropping them off at random locations.

In addition, since Governor Luis Fortuño came 
into power two years ago, police abuse has 
escalated and now free expression is under great 
threat. We have reported that university students 
at a peaceful protest have been subjected to 
violent attack and arrested by the hundreds, 
while female students have been inappropriately 
touched by police officers. Government 
proceedings were closed to the public and 
protestors at the legislature have been pepper 
sprayed, beaten and shot at by police. Tens of 
thousands of workers have been fired and their 
criticism of government policies repressed, while 
the legislature and federal courts suppress 
lawyers’ rights to speak out against their 
government. Specifically, the following are some 
of the most recent allegations of events:

•Puerto Rico’s Governor Luis Fortuño has made the 
troubling statement that he will not allow 
protests and expression from what he calls the 
“extreme left.” In what seems to be enforcement 
of an anti-First Amendment policy by the 
university’s Chancellor, massive police forces 
have been deployed at the University of Puerto 
Rico to suppress student protests over fee hikes.

•Starting in the summer of 2010, students of the 
University of Puerto Rico have been involved in a 
strike in opposition to an enrollment fee imposed 
by the UPR administration, after massive 
administration cuts to the university’s budget. 
In order to quash the peaceful protests, the 
government of Puerto Rico activated the Riot 
Squad Unit, who joined the elite SWAT unit on 
several occasions, resorting to extreme police 
brutality against protesters. Students have been 
mercilessly beaten, maced with pepper spray, and 
shot at with rubber bullets. Police have also 
applied torture techniques on immobilized student 
protesters, including the illegal use of 
nightsticks to provoke serious and permanent 
injuries, and the application of pressure in the 
neck, eye and jaw of the protesters to provoke 
pain and cause unconsciousness. At most events 
young women are the first to be targeted for 
police violence and have also been sexually 
harassed, groped and touched by police.

•At the University of Puerto Rico all forms of 
expression have been prohibited, through a 
Resolution issued by UPR Chancellor Ana 
Guadalupe; a resolution which Governor Luis 
Fortuño ordered armed police officers to enforce. 
The resolution, which was to be in force for a 
period of 30 days, has since been extended twice 
and is still in effect. On February 9, 2011, a 
group of students participated in civil 
disobedience on campus, consisting of a paint-in. 
During the paint-in, students peacefully and 
without interrupting the educational process, 
painted messages of protest in a limited area of 
the street at the front of the main library, in 
defiance of the Chancellor’s absolute prohibition 
on any form of protest. Students immediately came 
under extremely violent attack by members of the 
police force’s heavily armed SWAT and Riot Squad teams.

•On June 25, 2010, the President of the Puerto 
Rico Senate cut off public access to legislative 
sessions, even though it is constitutionally 
mandated that all sessions are open to the 
public. On June 30, 2010, at a protest at the 
steps of the Capital Building over the closing of 
access to legislative sessions, protesters were 
beaten, pepper sprayed, and shot at by the Puerto 
Rico police. A member of the legislature’s 
minority party was beaten and her arm broken as 
she was trying to enter the session; while many 
other young women were beaten. In one case, a 
mother who attempted to shield her young daughter 
from physical abuse was also beaten and dragged.

•In another troubling development, the Puerto 
Rico Bar Association, an organization viewed as a 
forum for dissent against the government, was 
recently de-certified through legislation, which 
the governor signed into law. In addition, some 
Bar Association members, with close ties to the 
majority party, filed what has been described as 
a “politically motivated” class action against 
the Puerto Rico Bar Association. Although a court 
order prohibited the president of the Bar 
informing lawyers that they could opt-out of the 
lawsuit, which could destroy this 171 year old 
institution, he did so anyway, and was thrown in 
jail by the federal judge hearing the case. He 
stayed in jail for four days until poor health 
forced him to pay a $10,000 fine so he could be 
released for medical treatment.

•In addition to the debacle and related violence 
at the University of Puerto Rico, in the past two 
years, legislation has been passed that would 
prohibit protests at construction sites, at any 
government building that renders educational 
services, and other locations rendering 
government services, under penalty of criminal prosecution.

Clearly, these allegations raise troubling 
questions about the Puerto Rican government’s 
commitment to the human rights of its citizens 
and the First Amendment’s protections of freedom 
of assembly, expression and the right to petition the government.

We hope that DOJ will soon conclude its 
investigation and intervene into these unconstitutional practices.

Thank you for your consideration. We hope to hear 
from you and your investigation team soon. Please 
feel free to contact me if you need any further information.

Sincerely,

Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director




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