WASHINGTON - Civil rights groups brought pressure yesterday on the U.S. Congress about allegations of civil rights violations in Puerto Rico, convinced that federal legislators can be key in getting the United States Department of Justice to accelerate their investigation.
"Without the intervention of Congress and the federal Justice Department, any reform of the police of Puerto Rico will not be enough," said Anthony Romero, national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who is Puerto Rican.
Along with Latino organizations LatinoJustice PRLDEF (formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund) and the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), the ACLU conducted a briefing yesterday in Congress on the preliminary findings of its investigation.
About 15 representatives from congressional offices, including one sent by Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin (Illinois) and officials of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives, were present. Also attending were officials of the Federal Affairs Administration Puerto Rico (PRFAA), who stood outside the hearing room afterwards to distribute a document that described to the "comprehensive effort" of the Luis Fortuño government to improve security and "professionalize" the police.
The ACLU, one of the leading civil rights organizations in the United States, submitted in 2008 to the federal Justice Department complaints about police brutality in Puerto Rico and has conducted its own investigation into the status of civil rights on the island
Last May, the ACLU held hearings in Puerto Rico to learn about the complaints from citizens and groups who have been victims of excessive use of force by police.
While the investigation of the ACLU begins in 2004 and was originally submitted to federal Justice Department in 2008, the problems under Governor Luis Fortuño "have intensified" in the cases of police brutality as the victims have been protesters, mostly students and workers, said Romero.
Police Have No Rules on Violence
As part of the session, the ACLU showed videos that police were using excessive force to crack down on unarmed students who were sometimes handcuffed and seated. "We had hoped that the government (of Fortuño) would take this seriously. Therefore, we bring this to the attention of Congress," Romero said to the legislative officials, warning that one possibility is that the federal Justice Department could create a kind of receivership of the police department of Puerto Rico.
Jennifer Turner, a researcher at the ACLU, said one of the most shocking findings was that the Puerto Rico police had no rules to regulate the use of force or chemicals weapons such as pepper gas.
Both Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, said that the mission of the ACLU sent last May to San Juan was faced with a government reluctant to deal with the problem.
"At the University of Puerto Rico, their leadership told us that this is not a problem, our focus should be not on student demonstrators, but on those who wanted to study," said Falcón, who believes that the authorities of the island saw the visit of this delegation, composed mainly of Stateside Puerto Ricans, as undue interference.
The research mission of the ACLU was composed also of Romero, former Major League Baseball player Carlos Delgado and actress Rosie Perez.
Romero said that "nobody has to invite" the ACLU to Puerto Rico to protect civil rights and urged Congress to assure that federal funds allocated to the island did not have the effect of promoting abuse against the population.
According Romero, "If the cases of police brutality (known to occur in Puerto Rico) occurred in Iowa, Connecticut and Mississippi, the U.S. press and Congress would lend a lot more attention."