Before the sun rose on the first day of 2018, someone called 911 to report the charred, bullet-riddled body of a man with a snake-like tattoo on his left hand, lying beside a road in the Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja.
The next day, two men were found dead with their feet and hands bound in Bayamon, a working-class city southwest of the capital. Another man was shot to death before dawn in nearby Vega Baja while trying to stop thieves from stealing his generator.
Thirty-two people have been slain in Puerto Rico in the first 11 days of the year, double the number killed over the same period in 2017. If the surge proves to be more than just a temporary blip, January could be the most homicidal month on the island in at least two years, adding a dangerous new element to the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, its worst disaster in decades.
While the number of homicides did not immediately spike in the weeks after the hurricane struck on Sept. 20, police and independent experts say many killings appear at least partly related to its aftereffects.
The storm has plunged much of the island into darkness, increased economic hardship and contributed to a sickout by police, all fueling lawlessness. What’s more, officials say a turf war has broken out among drug gangs looking to grab territory after the storm’s disruption.
“Hurricanes affect everyone, including criminals,” said criminologist Jose Raul Cepeda.
Already bankrupt, the island’s overwhelmed government has fallen behind with millions of dollars in overtime payments owed to police officers, who have begun calling in sick in big numbers to protest. The sickout has taken about 2,000 police off the street each day in a territory that has 13,600 officers. It has forced more than a dozen police stations to close for several hours to a couple of days during the holiday period because of a lack of officers. No arrests have been made in the 32 killings this year.