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Reeling From Drug Wars, Island Sends in Its Troops : The National Guard is helping residents of Puerto Rico’s housing projects leave behind the days of death from random gunfire.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Teddy Medina lives in the sprawling Vista Hermosa public housing project, where rent is cheap and so is life. When automatic weapons fire used to break out, signaling what might be a routine business negotiation between rival drug gangs, Medina and her neighbors routinely hit the floor.

“I took my TV to the floor with me,” says Medina, 54. “I didn’t want it to get killed either.”

Bullet holes are in the walls of building No. 47, where Medina lives, and several people have been killed by random gunfire here. One deliberate killing recently claimed the life of a man called “Black,” who tried to organize residents to stand up to the thugs.

Now the shooting has stopped. “It was a war zone,” Medina says. “But we can sort of live here now.”

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What has made life almost normal for the 1,500 residents of Vista Hermosa, as well as for those in about 30 other housing projects around the island, is that the caserios, as they are called, have been taken over by heavily armed police and National Guard troops.

Under an almond tree on the corner across the street from building 47, where a punto , or drug-selling point, once thrived, Sgt. Francisco Sanchez sits cradling a loaded M-16 rifle. “It’s quiet,” he says. “I think people like having us here.”

The commonwealth government’s policy of using National Guard troops in support of the island police force to raid and then occupy crime-ridden housing projects has proven to be controversial and effective. Civil libertarians have charged that using the Guard in a police action could violate the U.S. Constitution. But Gov. Pedro Rossello, who was elected last November in part on his promise to get tough on Puerto Rico’s skyrocketing crime rate, said drastic action was required.

“My main challenge, the highest priority, is the control of crime,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know what effect the use of troops has had on tourism, but I know crime has affected daily life.”

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The apparent success of Puerto Rico’s 5-month-old war on crime has attracted would-be imitators. Last month, Washington, D. C., Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly asked President Clinton to authorize use of the Guard for crime control in her city. The request was denied.

Almost 10% of Puerto Rico’s 3.6 million people live in public housing, most in 326 apartment projects scattered around the island. Puerto Rico’s superintendent of police, Pedro Toledo, says more than half of the projects have been designated to get special police and Guard protection.

Typically, the raids by as many as 500 police and Guard troops occur at night, and result in mass arrests and the confiscation of drugs and cash. Smaller contingents of police and Guard troops then take up 24-hour patrols.

“At first, there was some apprehension by the residents, and critics felt there would be a violation of civil rights,” Toledo says. “But these projects were called no-man’s-lands. Many times police were fired on in there, and some have been killed.

“After we take charge, we eliminate the puntos, then go in and fix the electricity, the sewers, cut the grass, paint, fix these neglected basic services, people thank us.”

Eventually, Toledo said, the National Guard and the police will withdraw from the projects, leaving behind police mini-stations, trained public housing police officers recruited from among the residents and checkpoint guard stations with bulletproof glass at each entrance. “We call it ‘Rescue, reconstruct and re-empower,’ ” Toledo said. “We want to give these projects back to the people.”

Some Vista Hermosa residents worry that, when the police leave, the drug dealers will return. “I think it would be better if a few of the police stayed,” said 20-year-old David Serrano, who used the proceeds of an insurance settlement from a car accident in which he was involved to buy a small bunker-like cement-block store selling sodas and snacks. Several police and Guardsmen sat in the shade along one wall of the shop.

“When the dealers were here, there were 13- and 14-year-olds selling drugs,” Serrano said. “Now those kids have gone back to playing ball.”

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One consequence of the housing project takeovers may be the island’s rising murder rate. Almost 800 slayings have been committed in Puerto Rico this year, a 20% increase over 1992. Toledo admits that, as drug dealers are driven from housing project puntos , they often try to muscle in on other established territories, touching off violence.

“Yes, there is some killing,” he said. “But when we force them out, into the parks or the streets, people will call us and it is easier for us to get them.”


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