SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Liz G. Rodríguez Quiñonez grew up schooled in being able to throw her body to the floor in the middle of the night, in the event that stray bullets from a nearby shootout came crashing through her window.
But it was only this past fall when Ms. Rodríguez, who operates a food truck in a town just east of the Puerto Rican capital, experienced her first murder: Standing by the stove in her truck one morning in September, she heard a series of pops, then screaming, and realized that the man who was the intended target of the gunfire was standing right behind her truck. She ducked — thanks to the training from her youth — but there was no hope for the man, who died only a few feet away.
It was not yet noon.
“I saw the dead body. He was around 30 years old. It was horrible,” Ms. Rodríguez, 30, said with a shudder.
Puerto Rico has long had one of the highest murder rates in the country, almost all of it attributable to gang violence. But a recent spree of brazen daylight killings, some of which were captured on video and widely shared on social media, have shaken the population and worried local and federal law enforcement officials who thought they had seen everything in the roiling, populous city of San Juan.
On Jan. 6, several men engaged in a morning shootout on the service road of a major thoroughfare in Isla Verde, near the airport, leaving one man dead. On Wednesday morning, a gas station security camera in Dorado captured a gunman in a ski mask who calmly walked up to a Honda, fired at its driver and left. On Thursday, Kevin Fret, an openly gay musician with a large social media following, was gunned down as he rode a motorbike before dawn in San Juan.
The case that barely made the news: A 10-year-old boy had been shot in Coamo the night before.
With headlines reporting that 22 people had already lost their lives violently in the first few weeks of 2019, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló convened a meeting of the heads of all the commonwealth and federal law enforcement agencies, who promised a crackdown. The public safety secretary dismissed the notion of a crime wave, even as police associations were calling for his ouster.
Puerto Rico, in the wake of bankruptcy and the devastation of Hurricane Maria, is enduring a sinking economy and a mass exodus. And while the murder rate is far lower than it was at its peak seven years ago, the decline offers little consolation when nearly 5,000 police officers have quit in the past few years and even a former police chief says she is afraid to leave her house after dark.
Twenty-five years after Puerto Rico made headlines by sending its National Guard to patrol urban neighborhoods, the island is still one of the most dangerous places in the world, even with steady declines in violent crime.
“It depends on how you define a crime wave,” said Douglas Leff, the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in San Juan. “There’s at least three different incidents that were videoed just in the last couple weeks that show really outrageously indifferent conduct — depraved, indifferent conduct to human lives — gang members just shooting without any regard to who else is going to be killed in addition to whoever their targets are.”
Kevin Fret, an openly gay musician with a large social media following, was fatally shot as he rode a motorbike before dawn in San Juan.CreditAlan Lopez for Remezcla
“To me,” he said, “that could be called a crime wave.”
Mr. Leff said the F.B.I. would ask for additional resources for Puerto Rico, admittedly difficult to obtain while the federal government is in the midst of the longest partial shutdown in its history. Mr. Luff said he expected that federal agencies would work with the police to bring charges for some crimes in federal court, where longer sentences would be imposed.
Héctor Pesquera, the public safety secretary, said the highly publicized “visuals” masked the progress being made. He said he planned a new strategy that would identify the most violent gang members who committed the vast majority of the recent turf-battle killings and target them for prosecution.
“If they think nothing is going to happen to them because nothing ever happens, they are in for a surprise,” Mr. Pesquera told reporters.
He has stressed, however, that Puerto Rico recorded 641 murders in 2018, down 10 percent from 710 the year before. For comparison, the island set a record of 1,135 homicides in 2011 — 30 killings for every 100,000 residents.
Even now, at about 20 per 100,000, Puerto Rico’s murder rate is four times that of the mainland United States, and is more in line with countries like Mexico.
Mr. Pesquera, who was police chief in 2012, managed to get the murder rate down significantly by arresting robbers on federal gun charges. Alexis Santos, a Pennsylvania State University demographer, noted that when Puerto Rico’s sharp drop in population is taken into account, the island’s steady decline in crime actually ended in 2015, when it increased again.
And it was Mr. Pesquera who for months insisted that just 64 people had died as a result of Hurricane Maria, even while anecdotal and statistical evidence mounted suggesting that the death toll was far greater, leading many Puerto Ricans to dismiss government statistics in general.
“People trust the facts and events that are documented by other citizens more,” said Víctor Rodríguez, a media professor at Sacred Heart University in San Juan. “Access to the telephone and the social networks mean these events are shared faster and without filters.”
Mr. Rodríguez’s family recently received a warning via WhatsApp that a curfew had been enacted because of a fugitive on the loose in their neighborhood. They had no idea if it was true, but found themselves staying indoors just in case.
José Marín, executive director of the Puerto Rico Police Union, said people were right to be scared.
“The delinquents now work daytime hours, coming out of cars with impunity, shooting in front of people,” Mr. Marín said. “They don’t care if anyone sees them. They have lost the fear of being arrested.”
Puerto Rico not long ago changed its pension plan for police officers, prompting thousands of them to quit. In 2012, the island had 17,500 police officers; it now has 11,800, the public safety department said.
About 900 officers resigned last year, not counting those who retired, Mr. Marín said.
To that, Mr. Pesquera, the public safety secretary, counters that the murder rate was worse when there were far more police officers on the street than it is now.
He said in an interview in August 2018 that property crime rates were down by 20 percent and personal crimes down by 21 percent from the year before.
“The correlation between crime and personnel is not necessarily direct,” he said.
He added that he was struggling with budget cuts mandated by the fiscal control board created by Congress, which ordered a $25 million cut from his operational budget.
“No way I can do that,” Mr. Pesquera said. “No way.”
This week, Governor Rosselló announced that other agencies would provide administrative support so that police officers could leave their desks and hit the streets. Noting that the island’s rate of solved crimes was a dismal 23 percent, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, asked the departments of Justice and Homeland Security on Wednesday for additional resources.
Myra Rivera, founder of a victim advocacy organization called Alliance for Social Peace, said the police were stuck in old, failed crime-fighting formulas. Law enforcement officials trade get-tough strategies while Puerto Rico is closing hundreds of schools because of budget constraints and population declines, she said.
“No country can feel comfortable with 400, 500, 600 murders,” said Ms. Rivera, whose 19-year-old daughter was killed at a disco in 1997.
Ms. Rodríguez, the food truck operator who saw the young man gunned down nearby, said no one feels secure with so many police stations shuttered.
“I live in Loiza, and at night, if you go to the police station, you find it closed,” she said.
Rayze Ostolaza, 24, a copywriter who was carjacked in 2017, said the problem is particularly acute for women.
“I don’t feel safe in Puerto Rico,” she said. “I go out, see a dark street, and walk with my heart trembling and a knot in my heart. And now things don’t only happen at nighttime, now in broad daylight they happen, too.”