Could Social Media Help Fight Crime in Puerto Rico?

PHOTO: After a brutal murder, Puerto Ricans call for an end to the violence on social media.

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Crime has skyrocketed in Puerto Rico over the past few years, with over a thousand people murdered in 2011 alone, half of which are said to be drug-related incidents. But, the disappearance and gruesome murder of 32-year-old publicist José Enrique Gómez last Thursday has incited one of the most extreme uproars on social media that the island has seen, with thousands of Puerto Ricans calling for an end to the violence.

Hours after police found Gómez's body on Monday night, hundreds, including celebrities such as Ricky Martin and Victor Manuelle, have posted pictures of themselves with a sign that read "Todos somos José Enrique" or "We are all José Enrique" on Instagram and Facebook. Still others tweeted messages of solidarity, with the popular hashtags #TodosSomosJoseEnrique, #LosBuenosSomosMas which loosely translates to "There are more of us who are good," and #BastaYa, which means "enough already."

Social media reportedly also aided in finding one of the suspects. After messages about the murder circulated on Twitter and Facebook, the mother of Edwin Torres, one of the alleged criminals reportedly recognized a picture of her son, and made him turn himself in on Monday.

But the social media outcry that ensued after the details of the murder emerged has also been unprecedented.

Jorge Rodriguez, a 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico who now lives and works in New York City, grew up with Gómez and says that his friend's death has set off a whole new conversation about violence within the Puerto Rican community both on and off the island.

"In these last five days, I'd say that 95 percent of what everybody's talking about on Facebook is the murder," Rodriguez said. "This is the one of the worst cases of violence we've seen. They didn't even have a gun and so when you see step by step what they did to this innocent guy, you think about how heartless these people can be."

After the four suspects reportedly forced Gómez to withdraw 400 dollars from an ATM in a parking lot in Caguas, Puerto Rico, they drove half an hour southwest to Cayey, doused Gómez in gasoline, beat him, and set him on fire. The brutal murder has gained attention in part because the victim had nothing to do with the drug trade, and was kidnapped in a commercial area which is thought by many to be safe from such violence.

Rodriguez, who is from Caguas and moved to New York two years ago, says he always felt safe in the metropolitan area, but that the violence from other regions has been slowing encroaching.

A number of factors have contributed to the island's rapid increase in shootings, robberies, and carjackings, said William Ramirez, the executive director of the Puerto Rico of ACLU. The island has become a hub for narcotics transportation into the Americas as the U.S. and Mexico have cracked down on drug transportation. The unemployment rate is also very high, at 15 percent, and 45 percent of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line. Many don't trust the police due to rampant brutality and corruption charges, according to Ramirez. Two years ago, the FBI arrested 61 officers on corruption charges -- the largest arrest in the agency's history.

"People don't want to cooperate with the police because they don't trust them," Ramirez said. "A lot of people feel like there's more to risk by helping them than by staying quiet."

Piled on top of all of those problems is the island's tremendous brain drain. Thousands of young Puerto Ricans are moving off the island each year due to lack of employment opportunities and the recent spike in crime. Last year, Puerto Rico had a larger population loss by percentage than any other state. Ramirez says that the brain drain, in turn, contributes to the island's violence.

"If the question is to fight the violence or flee, and enough people are choosing to flee, in the long run, we're in trouble," Ramirez said. "Among the people that are leaving are good policemen who feel like they can't fight crime here because of the corruption."

Of those using social media, some are calling for justice for Gómez and his family, with many inciting the death penalty (currently banned on the island), while others are pushing for more systemic changes, such as increased focus on education, a crackdown on police corruption, and an overhaul of the government's war on drugs.

Alana Feldman-Soler, the general coordinator of Taller Salud, an organization in Puerto Rico which runs an initiative to help young men involved in the drug trade, says that many on the island feel that social media is playing a new role in countering the violence. In this case, Twitter and Facebook have both raised awareness, and ultimately, helped find the suspects of the crime, she says.

"There is a strong feeling on the island that his case would have not been solved without social media. The great majority of murders here go unsolved by the police," Feldman-Soler said. "It would have been just one more of those victims if it weren't for the outpouring of interest on Facebook and Twitter."

In the 24 hours since Gómez's body was found, outcry on social media has turned into a more organized call to action. One of the fastest-growing movements related to the murder is a call to boycott the island's highest-rated television program, Super Xclusivo, after co-host Hector Travieso and co-host puppet, La Comay (Kobbo Santarrosa), hinted that Gómez's death may have been partially his own fault.

According to Pedro Julio Serrano, a human rights activist from Puerto Rico based in New York, the gossip-driven show has a history of anti-homosexual rhetoric, and this comment was the last straw. The momentum on social media has been such, that aFacebook group calling for the boycott has had more than 5,000 likes since it was opened on Tuesday, and has gown by more than 3,000 fans in just the last two hours before publishing.

"[Travieso and Santarrosa] said that where the victim was picked up was where homosexuality and prostitution abound, they were basically blaming the victim," Serrano said. "It united the pueblo in a clamor for justice. They were so indignant for trying to blame him for his own murder, instead of placing the blame where it should lie." Other Facebook petitions and groups denouncing Super Xclusivo and La Comay, have also sprouted.

Rodriguez is hopeful that the outpouring on social media will soon translate into a real movement for change. He says that he's seeing more positive posts about how the country can fix its problems than conversations about inciting violence and taking revenge.

"I'm starting to see productive conversations about meeting to organize," he said, "Everyone is posting what they can share, if its about education, if working in the streets. Many people are asking 'What can I do?', 'What can I do?', 'What can I do?'"

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