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Superintendent of the Police José Caldero and the Director of the Puerto Rico Police’s drug and weapons division, José Juan García. (Gerald López Cepero)

It is a sunny afternoon when a blue compact car stops at a gas station parking lot, such as one you would visit to fill up the tank or buy milk.  A man approaches it, as he exchanges greetings and a few words with the young driver. Suddenly, a wad of bills appears as if out of nowhere from the hands of the man that approached the car. Also out of nowhere, a pack of cocaine appears from the young driver’s lap. 

The wad of bills and three or four small bags of cocaine—it is difficult to get an exact count—exchange hands. The transaction occurs very quickly and it is executed with the nonchalance of somebody who has done it a thousand times before. The small car turns around and disappears. For just a couple of minutes, in broad daylight, and in a public place, a drug transaction took place without any witnesses.

Let us turn to any other regular afternoon. In this case, we find ourselves in the parking lot of a shopping mall in the metropolitan area. A trunk opens. From inside, we see a young man deposit an enormous black bag. A woman approaches it and opens it. She extracts an AK-47, the legendary assault rifle of Soviet design. It is the preferred accessory of killers in every generation; responsible for millions of deaths around the world.  

The woman inspects the weapon the way somebody would look up and down at the latest boots they intend to buy. The young man nervously watches her. He is constantly looking left to right. The woman approves. She takes two bags of marihuana and a scale from the black bag. She weighs them right then and there without worrying about somebody seeing them and wanting to ask them anything. She is satisfied and hands him a wad of bills that the young man quickly counts, before saying goodbye and disappearing.

Another drug transaction, murder weapon included, right in Puerto Rico’s face.

Both transactions, along with hundreds more, are recorded in police videos and are part of the first detailed census of the operations of drug selling locations in Puerto Rico, made public by the authorities. The census took two years, 80 agents, and a certified public accountant working for the police. It revealed that at least 542 drug selling spots in the Island operate continuously and often 24 hours a day. They generate approximately $366,808,620 a year in sales.

A Spot on Every Corner

“People talk of 1,000 or 1,200 drug spots, but nobody has been able to prove it.  These are the ones we can confirm exist because we have them on tape, in photos, and we know who operates them,” Superintendent of the Police José Caldero stated. He estimates there could be up to 300 more that have not been confirmed.

The police defines a drug spot as a continuous retail operation with a hierarchic structure and at least three employees.

Caldero and the Director of the Puerto Rico Police’s drug and weapons division, José Juan García, claimed that 92 of the identified locations have been disbanded and 311 are under investigation.

The rest are to be dealt with. Both of them acknowledged, however, that less than 24 hours after arresting the managers and employees of a spot, another group arises to take over the sector.

“There have been times after the feds have carried out a big raid and we go the next day. They are already operating again and we arrest them,” explained Caldero.

Five hundred forty-two drug selling locations in an island that is only 3,453 square miles means there is one every 6.4 square miles. It means that, if you are traveling in a car at a regular speed, a place to buy drugs can be found every 10 to 12 minutes. It means that they are found in public projects and neighborhoods—which has always been known—as well as in private neighborhoods, city centers, neighborhood streets, hotel lobbies, parking lots, universities, and anyplace with access to home delivery service.

According to the police study, the region with most operating drug spots is San Juan with 89; Caguas follows with 50; Carolina, 49; Aguadilla, 45; and Arecibo, with 43. The study is divided by the 16 regions with offices for the Police’s drug division.   

The study limits itself to the drug location operation, that is to say, retail.  The import of millionaire drug shipments from South America and the Caribbean, and its export—mainly to the east coast of the US—is another world. Other characters operate it and, in turn, it generates hundreds of millions of additional dollars in earnings. 

Authorities have calculated that only 10% of drugs coming into Puerto Rico stay here. That is what is sold in the streets because, aside from a few small marihuana crops, the Island does not produce drugs.

Even so, the estimated $366.8 million generated by the retail sale of drugs in Puerto Rico is a significant amount. That is barely $92.2 million less than the $459 million economist José Alameda calculates that the 18 Amigo Supermarkets in Puerto Rico sell. It is a bit more than 2015’s capital earnings here ($353.4 million.) It is $80 million more than the $286.7 million the government received in 2015 for taxes on tobacco and rum. It is $50 million more than what is generated in plane ticket earnings during the biggest migration wave in history.

Alameda has studied the drug trade’s impact on the local economy. He stipulates that, if it is true that only 10% of the drugs entering Puerto Rico wind up being sold on the streets, the real impact of drugs in the economy is of around $3.6 billion a year.

According to Almeda, it is estimated that drug trafficking generates $400 billion worldwide, 8% of the total global economy.

A Futile Effort?

Caldero, who recently spoke in favor of studying drug legalization, sees the issue from another perspective: the police directs large amounts of resources to investigate and disband drug spots, without seeing concrete results.

“We invested a lot of time and resources in these investigations and there is never a shortage of drugs in the streets,” Caldero indicated. He expressed that 22,000 arrests were made between June 2014 and November of this year, but the market has not been affected in the slightest.

He is also concerned with the violence problem drugs create. The police estimates that 68% of the almost 24,000 violent deaths that have taken place here over the last 30 years are drug-related.

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