The Department of Justice handed down its largest ever RICO indictment in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, bringing charges against 105 members of a drug dealing syndicate that it claims controlled much of the narcotics trade in San Juan's public housing projects and nearby areas on the island.
In its indictment, filed in Puerto Rico's federal district court, authorities allege "La Rompe ONU" in 2007 broke off from another group called La ONU — "romper" means to break, and ONU is short for the Organization of United Narcotraffickers. According to the filing, the original organization was formed at a meeting of "nearly all the drug gangs in San Juan," in 2004, where an alliance set out to "resolve conflict between previously rival drug gangs," avoid the scrutiny of law enforcement, and ensure greater profits.
When La ONU — also the Spanish acronym for the United Nations — broke in two, authorities say the rival factions "essentially split" the housing project gangs that ran the local trade of heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and crack.
"The members from the various La Rompe ONU housing projects would jointly attack and commit murders of the La ONU members," said the indictment, which referred to 12 killings. The charges outlined what authorities said were the rules La Rompe ONU members had to follow, which included orders to "kill La ONU members on sight," and prohibited internecine takeovers among La Rompe gangs. Any violations of the rules, said authorities, "resulted in the punishment by death to the violator and their family."
The 105 defendants, who went by nicknames like Pedrito Trauma, Pitbull, Oreo, and Masacre, were charged with crimes including racketeering, drug trafficking, murder, and firearm offenses. By utilizing federal RICO law, the Justice Department was able to link all the defendants — from alleged leader Josue "El Father" Vazquez-Carrasquillo to low-level dealers — to the "enterprise," in this case La Rompe ONU.
The Justice Department said 34 suspects had been arrested leading up to the indictment, while a further 32 were already in jail on other charges. Some 700 federal and local law enforcement officials were involved in the arrests. All of the defendants face life in prison; while Puerto Rico does not practice capital punishment, because the charges are federal, 18 defendants charged with murder are eligible for the death penalty.
"We've had numerous indictments that were for drug trafficking in public housing, this for us is the biggest with RICO charges we've ever had in Puerto Rico," said Lymarie Llovet, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice in San Juan.
The arrests come amid a brutal recession in Puerto Rico, and weeks after the territory's governor announced it would not be able to make payments on its public bonds without restructuring the debt. Recent years have seen a massive exodus of residents to the US mainland, where there are now more Puerto Ricans than the 3.5 million who remain on the island.
Though the official murder rate in Puerto Rico has nearly halved since 2011, many of its residents still cite crime, along with the economy, as reasons for leaving the territory for US states. Puerto Ricans also often don't trust government crime statistics, which they claim are doctored to give the appearance of progress.
"From the average citizen's perspective, and I include myself in that, it doesn't feel like it's gone down — on the contrary, most people feel it's gone up," William Ramirez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told VICE News. "Whether that's real, we'll never know because you can never rely on the statistics here, and most people don't."
Endemic corruption has for decades damaged the reputation of Puerto Rico's local law enforcement agencies and led in part to outsize federal involvement in tackling the drug trade. Between 2005 and 2010 — a period just after the founding of La ONU and during its subsequent break-up — roughly 10 percent of Puerto Rico's police force was arrested for crimes that included "rape, drug trafficking, and murder," according to a Department of Justice investigation. Last December, 12 former officers were convicted of running a drug trafficking ring out of Puerto Rico's police department.
Ramirez said that local authorities often prefer to have the FBI and the Justice Department carry out investigations and arrests because federal charges supersede Puerto Rico's constitution, which affords certain legal protections — for instance, obtaining wiretaps is more difficult — in excess of those found in American states.
"It's kind of a hard pill to swallow because they are used by the local police to do crime fighting for them without affording the accused constitutional protections," said Ramirez. "Everything in Puerto Rico is federalized."
While Wednesday's indictment is the largest in the territory to make use of RICO conspiracy laws, it is not uncommon for federal and local authorities to round up many dozens for drug dealing. In 2013, US Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez brought charges against 126 people on narcotics charges. In March of this year, 61 were indicted for narcotics and money laundering crimes; in May, 24 for trafficking.
"The government goes into poor neighborhoods and they scoop up everybody, including innocent people," said Juan Ramon Acevedo, a San Juan defense attorney who has represented defendants in similar cases in the past, told VICE News. "It's 60, 80, 100 people — the number is no longer significant. Most are low-level sellers and a few mid-level dealers."
Many of those charged on Wednesday that face life in prison are listed only as "runners" or "sellers."
"These guys are selling drugs in a drug point, they have an eight-hour shift, make maybe 75 dollars a day, usually to pay their own drug addiction — and they are subject to life in prison," said Acevedo. "They may arrest 100 and then in a few weeks there will be people selling drugs again."