Did Puerto Rican Police Go Too Far During Protests? What the Video Shows.


For two weeks in July, Puerto Rico erupted in popular anger against Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló, whose leaked texts revealed an inner circle that jokingly dismissed the island’s woes, including the thousands left dead by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Infuriated and demanding his removal, protesters took aim at the symbol of Mr. Rosselló’s authority: La Fortaleza.

The executive mansion in San Juan became the target of a widespread mobilization that grew to hundreds of thousands of people and culminated July 24 with Mr. Rosselló’s pledge to resign.

But the events leading up to Mr. Rosselló’s resignation were marked by near-continuous protests and several days of intense confrontations with the police, who blocked off the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan surrounding La Fortaleza.

The New York Times reviewed dozens of videos and photos of the protests. They show that Puerto Rican police used tear gas on large crowds packed into confined streets, fired rubber-coated metal pellets from shotguns at close range and used batons to beat protesters who did not pose a threat. Around 20 people were injured, and 17 were arrested, according to Mari Mari Narváez, the executive director of Kilómetro Cero, an organization that advocates for police accountability on the island.

Though the videos show that a majority of protesters were peaceful, some threw bottles, cans and fireworks at police officers. On at least one occasion, protesters tried and failed to ignite and throw Molotov cocktails at the police.

In an email to The Times, Axel Valencia Figueroa, the press director for the Puerto Rico Police, said protesters had attacked police officers with “stones, plastic bottles with accelerators, explosive devices, among other things.” He added that police officers are allowed to use approved “containment and dispersion techniques” to deal with crowds that turn violent.

The most common tactic used by Puerto Rican police during the July protests was the deployment of tear gas against the crowds massed on Calle Fortaleza, a shopping street that leads toward the mansion. The police used tear gas or pepper spray on six of the 15 days of protest, Ms. Narváez said.

The video above shows that police officers deployed tear gas in the middle of tightly bunched crowds, often causing dangerous crushes as people tried to escape the gas’s irritating and asphyxiating effects.

During each of the three biggest confrontations, on July 15, 17 and 19, Mr. Figueroa said, police officers issued 10 commands for demonstrators to leave before using tear gas to disperse them.

But Ms. Narváez and William Ramírez, the executive director of Puerto Rico’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said those nightly orders to disperse, which were typically issued around 11 p.m., were illegal and amounted to a de facto curfew that the police did not have the authority to unilaterally declare.

“We call it in Spanish ‘apagando la constitución.’ They are turning off the constitution at night when the police want people to just stop protesting,” Ms. Narváez said.

Puerto Rican police officers were also filmed beating nonviolent protesters with extendable batons on multiple occasions. The video below shows two instances when police beat protesters who did not appear to pose a threat.

Rohini Haar, a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health and an expert with the advocacy organization Physicians for Human Rights, said that police are supposed to use weapons like batons scrupulously to protect themselves or in cases when someone is hurting an officer while resisting arrest, but that “none of that is indicated in these videos.”

As the video continues, the man turns his phone on himself, but then seems to begin to lose consciousness as blood drips from a wound on his head onto the wall behind him and down the front of his shirt.

The police also used shotguns loaded with crowd control ammunition, including rubber-coated metal pellets. In the videos below, they can be seen pursuing and targeting individual protesters at close range, causing bloody wounds to several protesters’ legs, arms and faces.

“I don’t think there’s any role for rubber bullets in policing protests,” Dr. Haar, who’s an emergency room physician, said. “They’re not discriminate and they’re dangerous, you know, you can’t use them from far away, because then God knows what you’ll hit. You can’t use them from close up, because then you’ll really hurt people.”

Ricardo Olivero Lora, a documentary filmmaker, said a police officer shot him with some kind of crowd control ammunition while he was filming officers dispersing protesters early on the morning of July 23. In a video he provided to The Times, an officer can be seen loading a canister into a riot gun and firing in Lora’s direction.

Lora said the officer had just chased protesters away when he took aim and fired the gun. He said that it felt as though he had been hit in the legs with marbles, but because the shots were fired from a distance, he was not hurt.

In two videos shot simultaneously, a woman identified by Kilómetro Cero as Rocío Juarbe can be seen trying to convince protesters not to throw objects at the police. As she yells, the police ranks part behind her and one of the officers fires a blast from a shotgun. The woman retreats, then turns to yell at the police, who fire another blast at her.

It was unclear from the video what type of ammunition the police used, but shotguns can also be loaded with rock salt, bore cleaners or noise rounds that cause less severe injuries than rubber-coated pellets.

Joshua Hernández, a 23-year-old accountant who lives in San Juan, was hit in the face by three rubber-coated metal pellets while participating in a protest July 22.

At around 11 p.m. outside La Fortaleza, police officers ordered Mr. Hernández and the rest of the crowd to disperse, saying their protest was illegal and giving them 10 minutes to leave, he said.

Protesters began throwing water bottles and empty cans at the police, Mr. Hernández said in a video interview with The Times. In response, officers threw tear gas grenades into the crowd and then began firing shotguns.

Doctors removed one of the pellets from Mr. Hernández’s head and gave it to him in case he wanted to a file a complaint against the police.

“I touched that bullet. And it did not feel like rubber at all, it felt like full metal,” he said.

On July 24, Mr. Hernández was at La Fortaleza again when Mr. Rosselló announced his intent to resign. A photographer captured Mr. Hernández’s reaction, his arms raised and the wounds from the metal pellets still visible under the brim of his hat.

“It’s not over yet for PR I believe this has just woke up the start of something new for us,” he texted The Times July 26.

Logan Mitchell contributed reporting.

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