Julio Ramos Oliver died over a spilled drink.
It was just after midnight January 20, and Old San Juan shook with the fiesta de San Sebastián. Under the golden glow of street lamps, more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans packed onto the narrow cobblestone calles for the year's biggest party.
Dressed in a baggy yellow shirt and black hat, Ramos had met family members and friends hours earlier underneath a 40-foot totem pole overlooking the churning Caribbean Sea. Reggaeton refracted off the colonial architecture, and drunken revelers and empty beer cans littered the plaza.
At 12:52 a.m., Ramos, a 32-year-old fisherman, headed down a packed side street. As he raised a beer can to his lips, he clattered into the back of the man in front of him. The man spun around, his white jersey dripping with beer. Ramos apologized, but it was too late. The man raised his shirt to reveal a pistol. "We're prepared," he said. Ramos reportedly removed a knife from his pocket and answered, "So am I."
As the two men stared each other down, a third figure emerged from the crowd behind Ramos. A gun muzzle flashed. The fisherman fell to the ground, blood spurting from his throat onto the cobblestones. The gunmen fled, but not before blasting two more rounds into the dying man.
Ramos's killing was just one in a relentless wave of murders in Puerto Rico over the past three years. In 2011, the tiny island's record 1,136 killings put it on par with civil-war zones such as the Congo and Sudan in terms of murders per capita. Last year was little better. And in the past four months, a series of particularly horrific slayings has terrorized the tropical paradise. First, boricua boxer Hector "Macho" Camacho was mysteriously gunned down in November. Two weeks later, a well-known publicist was kidnapped, set on fire and beaten to death. And just last month, a gangster ran his car over an entire family, killing six.
Ramos's death in the heart of the city during the crowded SanSe fiesta was the most brazen and symbolic slaying yet. It signaled to the world what Puerto Ricans have known for several years: The "Isle of Enchantment" has become bewitched by violence. A crackdown on drugs coming across the Mexican border has only pushed contraband through the Caribbean, transforming the American commonwealth into the newest nexus for narcotraffickers.
"If this were anywhere else in the States, it would have created a national security crisis by now," Puerto Rico's police chief, Hector Pesquera, says of the sky-high murder rate, roughly seven times the national average. "But we are out of sight and out of mind."
When Luis "Jerry" Roque, a cook at Houston's Tex-Chick Puerto Rican restaurant, hears these stories, he simply nods, tossing his eyes to the side and affirming that, sí, it's that bad. He notes that these murders — these street deaths, as he calls them — are something everyone on Puerto Rico, whose population is just over half the size of greater Houston, knows about.
Camacho's shooting stunned the island. Ramos's death brought things to a point. Packed pistols on basketball courts, stray-fly bullets missing their targets and hitting those unintended. These "streets deaths" have pushed the wealthy into gated communities and forced many of the rest behind windows barred in reinforced iron.
"It's getting worse," Roque says, with his boss, Angel Lajara, aiding in translation. "The drugs are there — everything's there." Lajara jumps in: "If you want to find problems there, you can. Get some alcohol in you, and you can find whatever trouble you want."
Roque, who arrived as one of Texas's 30,000-strong Puerto Ricans only four months ago, who began working as a cook at Houston's 33-year-old Tex-Chick just two months after he arrived, chooses his words. He's normally amiable, normally boisterous, but his voice drops when these murders come up.
He says he hasn't seen anything firsthand. He says there's been nothing on his doorstep, nothing in his cocina in his home in Caguas, 30 minutes south of San Juan. But his friends — he won't talk about what his friends do, and have done. "There are maybe nine, ten gangs in my home," Roque said, trailing off, hesitant to say more.
He says that his life in Texas is "far more calm, more tranquil" than what he knew in Puerto Rico. Caguas is a midsize town, and Roque had a steady job at a local cafeteria. But he couldn't stay. "I didn't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
To be sure, an economic component has played a large role in the swelling Puerto Rican ranks in Texas — which has suddenly become the third-largest destination in the country for educated puertorriqueños, following Florida and New York. "After last November's election, the new government eliminated 30,000 jobs in the government industry — engineers, doctors, nurses," says Rosa De Jesus, the secretary of the Sociedad de Puertorriqueños en Houston. "A lot of people lost their houses because of this. A lot of people have had both husband and wife lose their jobs."
And so the cycle loops back upon itself. Economic hardship begets drug-running, which begets violence, which begets a murder rate normally reserved for postcolonial power struggles.
Yet Americans who ignore the island do so at their own peril. As Puerto Rican politicians make an unprecedented push to become the 51st state, the commonwealth has become more central than ever to the United States's drug and crime problems. Pesquera estimates that 80 percent of the narcotics entering Puerto Rico end up in East Coast cities, particularly Miami and New York. Guns and money move in the opposite direction, and fugitives flow freely back and forth, frustrating officials. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are pouring into Florida, New York and Texas to escape the gunfire gripping their homeland.
Pesquera's police force is outgunned and overmatched. To make matters worse, rampant corruption and civil-rights violations dog the department, which, at 17,000 employees, is the second-largest in the nation. Whether because of these doubts or the spiraling national debt, the feds have been reluctant to help. Something has to give.
"This is the United States of America, whether people like it or not," Pesquera says. "We are the country's third border. If we don't protect it, you guys are fucked."
By 10 a.m., the blood had already disappeared from Calle Saint Just. It wasn't cleaned up, like the scores of AK-47 cartridges that were scattered across the intersection like rice after a wedding. Instead, the blood was simply gone — returned to the Puerto Rican earth.
"The trucks roll by and spread it all over the place," says Officer Angel Martinez, a gruff, blue-eyed homicide detective.
Like most murders here, the blood belongs to gangsters who have gunned each other down, Martinez says. Around 9 p.m., drug dealers in a black SUV ambushed their rivals on this industrial stretch of east San Juan. Three men fled into a funeral home parking lot — a fitting place to die. The ambushers cornered them and mowed them down with assault rifles. One man survived; the others bled out on the dirty pavement. In the hours after those deaths, five other people were killed around San Juan.
Martinez has no choice but to shrug off such horrors. Grisly scenes are as regular as morning cafecito for Puerto Rican cops, who have the unenviable task of bringing order to San Juan's streets. As murders have doubled since the late '90s, the cops have found themselves overwhelmed by drug traffickers, marooned by an indifferent federal government and undercut by corruption.
At the head of that effort is Pesquera, a 66-year-old with a white beard, glasses and a sailor's mouth. "Every morning, I look at the stats and ask myself: 'What could we have done to prevent this?'" he says during an interview in his corner office. In these particular cases, not much, he concludes. "But guess who is blamed?"
Before Pesquera can save the island from chaos, he must first fix an antiquated police force infamous for graft and brutality.
"There have been scandals about police corruption and cops killing civilians in the streets for years in Puerto Rico," says Bruce Bagley, an expert on organized crime in Latin America and professor at the University of Miami.
This isn't the first time waves of violence have broken over Puerto Rico. Perched at the strategic entrance to the Caribbean, the Connecticut-size island has a long and bloody history. Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León slaughtered Taíno natives beginning in 1508. Over the centuries, slave uprisings and independence movements were put down with deadly force. By 1898, the colony had won a degree of autonomy, only for the Spanish-American War to transfer control to the United States.
When Puerto Rican politicians voted for independence in 1914, the United States responded by granting boricuas (anyone living on the island) U.S. citizenship — just in time to be drafted for World War I. Another 30 years passed before Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own governor.
Under U.S. rule, the island became a popular vacation spot. But by the 1980s, with Colombian cocaine flowing through Puerto Rico to south Florida, violence became endemic. Murders decreased in the 1990s as drug routes shifted to Central America and Mexico, but in 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared an assault on cartels. Two years later, the United States launched its own $1.6 billion Merida Initiative to combat gangs.
"That is why in the past three years, Puerto Rico has become increasingly visible in regard to drug scandals," Bagley says. "This is an unintended consequence of the pressure being brought in Mexico and Central America."
Today drugs from Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic stream in on Jet Skis and go-fast boats. "Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, illegal contraband that makes it to the island is unlikely to be subjected to further U.S. Customs inspections," U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, head of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said during a hearing last year.
In an e-mail to the Houston Press, McCaul reaffirmed his stance. "In order for our nation to be secure, a comprehensive security strategy that takes into account all of our borders — including the Puerto Rican border — must be implemented," he wrote. "[I]t is clear that more needs to be done."
Pesquera, who'd been appointed chief a few months before that hearing, listened quietly in the audience as then-Governor Luis Fortuño accused the feds of having "no strategy." Puerto Rican by birth, Pesquera spent 27 years working for the FBI, running the agency's Miami office from 1998 until his retirement in 2003 and overseeing infamous cases including the "Cuban Five" spy ring and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Last March, at Fortuño's request, he took a leave of absence from his job as head of security at the Port of Miami to try to save his homeland.
Today he looks exhausted. Pesquera lives close to his office but is — by law — watched over night and day by heavily armed guards. ("I do go out sometimes without them knowing," he says with a smirk.) He is ferried to work in a brand-new, gleaming black SUV with lead in the doors. The windows in his corner office are bulletproof.
Amid the violence and paranoia, Pesquera has instituted practical reforms: updating aging equipment, improving training, and winning public support by sacking bad cops. And there have been small improvements. In 2012, murders fell to just fewer than 1,000 from their peak the year before, thanks to an odd arrangement with federal prosecutors. (The first two months of 2013 saw 148 new corpses on the island — a shocking total but slightly below the number during the same period last year.)
Unlike laws anywhere else in America, Puerto Rican law allows anyone — even accused murderers — to bond out of jail. Drug dealers often spring out, skip court, disappear and keep on killing. "We've had guys wearing [electronic] ankle bracelets murdering people," Pesquera says. In the past year, however, the Department of Justice has increasingly used federal gun charges, which prohibit bond, to keep criminals off the street. "We're sending two flights a week to the U.S. because we can't hold them all."
Still, the bloody tide has barely receded. "In reality, all of San Juan is hot," Angel Martinez confesses as he cruises away from the funeral-home shooting toward the next crime scene: a triple homicide in the town of Canovanas, ten minutes east of the capital.
Gunmen fired more than a hundred AK-47 rounds here last night, and a handful still lie scattered around the crime scene. Water in a nearby drainage ditch is cloudy with blood.
Julio Ramos Oliver's January killing made grisly headlines as far away as Canada. Puerto Rico was already reeling from a string of sensational slayings and battered by 14 percent unemployment; the last thing the commonwealth needed was to scare off tourists. Suddenly, the island's slogan, "Puerto Rico does it better," seemed less an invitation than an assassin's snarl.
"People here are fearful," Pesquera says. "It's because there is indiscriminate shooting in public areas between [drug gangs], and innocent bystanders get hit."
A deeper look at the past year's most brutal crimes — and the stories of those affected by the bloodshed — illustrates even better than eye-popping stats why educated Puerto Ricans are fleeing to Miami, New York and Texas like never before. Nearly 5 million Puerto Ricans now live in the mainland United States, compared with just 3.6 million on the island. As the commonwealth shrinks by 15,000 people a year, Florida's Puerto Rican population grows by 7,300 annually. Texas, a state with little prior history of immigration from the island, now welcomes nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans a year. They're driven by a lack of jobs but also by the carnage.
"Last year there were 180 fewer murders than in 2011, but they were probably even more brutal and shocking," says Luis Romero, the founder of antiviolence group Basta Ya! Romero should know: His son was stabbed to death in 2011 while walking with his girlfriend. But recent murders have been so "ghastly," Romero says, that Puerto Rico is suffering from island-wide post-traumatic stress disorder.
The string of shocking killings began two months before the SanSe festival, with the death of Hector Camacho, the boxer who had garnered worldwide fame by winning 79 fights (and losing just six) with a flamboyant style. Camacho and a friend were fatally shot as they sat in a car outside a bar in his hometown, Bayamón. Police found ten packets of cocaine in the car, one of them open. The boxer had been shot in the face.
On November 29, a well-known publicist named José Enrique Gómez Saladín went missing. Soon video footage emerged showing Gómez being forced to take out $500 from an ATM. Four days later, he was found burned and beaten to death with lead pipes.
The day that police announced they had arrested four suspects for kidnapping Gómez in a seedy neighborhood, a popular TV show called SuperXclusivo aired a segment about the killing. The show's main character, a puppet named La Comay (slang for "The Godmother"), stunned viewers by suggesting Gómez got what he deserved. "I ask myself if this killing was not involved in sex, drugs, homosexuality and prostitution," La Comay said. "Did he get what he was looking for?"
A boycott forced the program off the air weeks later, but the damage had been done. The La Comay scandal seemed to expose a newfound heartlessness, as if boricuas had become numb to the violence.
Then came the SanSe murder. Sujeylee Ramos, Julio's older sister, was there that night beneath the totem pole but left shortly before her brother was shot. Her teenage niece tried to revive Julio when cops failed to do anything.
The bloody tide continued. On January 23, 24-year-old Steven Cruzado López was shot in the back on a basketball court in San Germán after another player took offense at a foul. Less than a week later, a man and his wife were killed hours after abandoning the island's witness protection program.
None of that compared to the carnage of February 1. Seven relatives were crossing the street near their housing project in San Juan when a stolen car careened into them. The collision killed six, including a grandmother, her granddaughter and four great-grandchildren.
That crime illustrates another regular challenge for police: The driver, 21-year-old Jonathan Soto Bonilla — nicknamed "787" for the Puerto Rican area code tattooed on his neck and already a suspect in a drug-related double murder — fled the scene on foot before catching a flight hours later to New York City.
Soto is far from the first fugitive to flee to the mainland. The reverse is also common. In the summer of 2009, nine people were killed in drug skirmishes in Buffalo, New York. When authorities cracked down on gangs, many members fled to Puerto Rico. Last year, a New Jersey marijuana trafficker named Felipe Cantres-Sanjurjo, wanted for two murders, was caught in Puerto Rico. And this January, officials in Camden, New Jersey, charged 36 members of a heroin ring linked to the Ñetas, a powerful gang operating inside Puerto Rico's prisons.
"These guys will go from Puerto Rico to New York because something happens in Puerto Rico and they have got to run," says a recently retired NYC gang investigator, who asked that his name not be used. "Other guys come here because of the drug trade or because they are no longer in good graces with their gang [on the island]...It's definitely a strong network."
Few of Puerto Rico's recent grisly murders have been solved. In some, such as Camacho's killing, cops don't even have suspects. And even if they make arrests, witnesses are often too afraid to testify.
Wanda Figueroa left work just in time to see her two sons get shot.
It was a muggy afternoon in Manatí, a city of strip malls surrounded by jagged green hills to the west of San Juan. Figueroa had walked out of the Taco Maker, where she worked, and into the parking lot to meet her 22-year-old daughter and her younger son, Saul, but she found him in a shouting match with a stranger holding a club.
She watched in horror as the man struck her 19-year-old over the head, sending him crashing to the pavement. Her older son, Adrian, stormed out of the restaurant and grabbed the man's weapon. Then the man pulled out a gun. He sprayed Adrian four times in the chest, shoulder and foot and then turned, sinking two fatal shots into Saul's stomach. Finally he pointed the gun at Figueroa and pulled the trigger. Click. It was out of ammunition.
It wasn't a robber or a drug dealer tearing apart Figueroa's family on April 27, though. The barrel she was staring down was government-issued. Her son's killer was a cop.
That double shooting is one of hundreds of cases of alleged brutality by the Puerto Rico Police Department, which was slammed in a 2011 DOJ report that cites "the staggering level of crime and corruption involving PRPD officers," including drug dealing, gun running and murder. A 2012 ACLU probe, meanwhile, determined that PRPD is "a dysfunctional and recalcitrant police department that has run amok for years. Use of excessive or lethal force is routine, and civil and human rights violations are rampant."
Pesquera disputes those findings — "I don't care about all that special-agenda crap," he says — but to critics, Figueroa's story shows why many Puerto Ricans fear cops more than they do thugs.
"Police here are like an enormous octopus with its tentacles in everything," Figueroa says. "They do whatever they want."
A tiny woman with bleached-blond hair, Figueroa has worked at the Taco Maker for 23 years, rising to manager and raising her three kids by herself, taking them to work with her.
The day of the shooting, Figueroa and Adrian, then 20, had been working at the restaurant. Her daughter, Zuleyka Perez, and son Saul had been visiting Saul's sick five-month-old in the hospital. They arrived in separate cars, bearing the same good news: The infant was recovering from a bacterial infection.
The trouble began, everyone agrees, when Zuleyka parked her car in the Taco Maker lot and found Officer Alfredo Delgado Molina behind her on his motorcycle. "You ran the light," he told her. Saul quickly walked over, and Figueroa came outside.
That's when the facts get murky. Figueroa and her daughter say Delgado snapped at Figueroa: "If you're not a judge or a lawyer, you need to get the fuck back inside!" When Saul demanded that Delgado stop yelling at his mother, the cop struck Saul and then — as Adrian ran out to help — pulled his gun and began shooting.
"We aren't bad people," Figueroa says with a sob, standing in the spot outside Taco Maker where she watched Saul die. "We all work in the same place, stay out of trouble. I raised all three kids by myself as best as I could. They aren't criminals. And then they take them away like this? It's difficult."
The police disputed that story. Delgado, who couldn't be reached for comment, said in a statement that the brothers had hit the officer in the face and knocked out a tooth. ("It was either his life or theirs," his supervisor added.) Cops also claimed to have found a metal pipe at the scene used to beat Delgado.
Pesquera adamantly defends his officer, who was cleared by the force's Special Investigations Department. "These two guys came out and hit the officer," the chief says. "He defended himself."
In fact, Pesquera says he wants his cops to act just like Delgado. "If you challenge a police officer and you bring a weapon, expect to be shot at."
Figueroa's struggle didn't end with Saul's death or Adrian's long recovery, though. Incredibly, both mother and son were slapped with five criminal counts ranging from assault to obstruction of justice. Under a law signed by Fortuño, they both face 99 years in jail because the alleged crimes resulted in a death — namely, Saul's.
"They are blaming us for my own son's death," Figueroa says in disbelief, raising her pant leg to reveal an electronic monitoring bracelet.
Whomever's story you believe, there's no question that cases such as the Figueroas's exacerbate Pesquera's challenge. Consider the DOJ's 2011 findings, including that trigger-happy cops often unload rounds without reason, "unnecessarily injur[ing] hundreds of people and kill[ing] numerous others," usually in poor areas.
As if that accusation weren't bad enough, many Puerto Rican cops are straight-up criminals. Between 2005 and 2010, more than 1,700 PRPD officers were arrested on charges ranging from theft and assault to drug trafficking and murder. The FBI arrested 61 islander cops in one swoop in 2010, accusing them of protecting drug traffickers. Officers killed 21 people in 2010 and 2011, including the recent fatal shooting of an unarmed 14-year-old. "The PRPD is using excessive force as a substitute for community policing," the ACLU report concluded.
Pesquera counters that he's already fired more cops in ten months than his predecessors did in four years. When he discovered there were 4,000 pending internal investigations, plus another 7,000 awaiting adjudication from the legal department, he made them a priority. "We are down to 700 that still need to be investigated," he says.
But Pesquera's own record isn't spotless. In 2003, Miami New Times reported on a DOJ investigation into his close friendship with convicted Cuban felon Camilo Padreda, a pre-Castro policeman who specialized in bribing city officials. Pesquera let him hang around the FBI offices so much that employees eventually reported their concerns to outside agencies. One cop recounted seeing Pesquera accept a gold watch from the crook.
Pesquera brushes aside the decade-old accusation. And when it comes to reforming Puerto Rico's shambolic police force, he is blunt. Some degree of corruption is inevitable in a place where drug money is rampant and cops' salaries are minuscule (the median was $31,000 a year in 2011). But he denies that brutality and crime are deeply rooted.
"Like any institution, there are going to be guys who beat people," he says with a shrug. "It's not the institution's fault unless you don't do anything about it."
Four hundred feet from the spot where Ramos died over a spilled drink, a steep cliff drops precipitously into the sea. Wedged between the cliff and the Caribbean lies La Perla, a slum infamous as a redoubt for drug traffickers and a tourist mecca for marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
"They have sophisticated radio equipment so they can listen in on us and signal blockers keeping us from spying on them," says Juan Nieves, a veteran cop with salt-and-pepper hair, as he peers down into the dark, densely built barrio from his cruiser on the higher ground of Old San Juan.
La Perla — where police are powerless and the drug trade paramount — is a microcosm of Puerto Rico, which is sure to see ever more drugs and violence as the States and Mexico clamp down harder on their shared border. And though 80 percent of the island's murders are drug-related, Pesquera's requests for federal aid have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, the sequestration cuts hitting the Coast Guard and Customs mean he's likely to receive less help than ever this year.
"We are not going to arrest our way out of our murder problem," Pesquera says. "We need help fighting the flow of drugs. That's what's killing us."
Sitting in an unmarked Chevy Caprice in the shadows overlooking La Perla, Nieves and his partner, Osvaldo Merced, point out a drug deal under way.
"Check out these two guys. They are looking to score," says Merced, a young cop with a buzz cut and superhero-size shoulders. Two teenagers in black rock-and-roll T-shirts approach a stone staircase plunging toward the ocean. An old man perched next to the stairs says something lost in the surf. "That's the lookout," Merced says.
The teens disappear down the staircase and then emerge a few minutes later. The one in a Rolling Stones shirt drops something into the old man's hand. The two then head toward one of San Juan's most popular nightclubs.
Tonight Merced and Nieves aren't making arrests, just showing a journalist how the city works. But in 2011, Puerto Rican police did conduct a rare raid of La Perla, arresting nearly 70 members of a drug ring, including its leader, Jorge "Truck Face" Gómez-González.
"You can tell where the bichotes (big shots) live because they have the fanciest homes," says Merced, pointing to several three-story houses. "They have three, four Mercedeses and girlfriends with bodies sculpted by the best plastic surgeons in the world."
"They are better than us," adds Nieves, who is two days from completing 25 years on the force. "We arrested Truck Face, but someone else just took his place."
For now, Pesquera is pleading for help, including at a recent meeting with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who pledged support. "I don't think she was blowing smoke up my ass," he says. Yet when the Coast Guard unveiled a fleet of 12 new cutters, they went to Miami and Key West — where drugs rarely arrive via the ocean these days — instead of Puerto Rico.
Truth is, there's little willpower in DC to spend heavily on an island of 3.6 million people whose ballots don't count. Perhaps that's why Puerto Ricans are debating louder than ever their identity as a U.S. commonwealth. When boricuas went to the polls last November, 54 percent rejected the status quo. But the vote was split among those who favored independence, statehood or remaining a commonwealth. Fortuño — the governor who appointed Pesquera — was dumped out of office.
Pesquera isn't sure whether he will remain police chief beyond the end of March, when he is scheduled to return to Miami. His department remains in flux: 17,000 cops with frayed uniforms, aging equipment, no computers and — if the fatal shooting of Saul Medina Figueroa is any indication — more than a few bad apples.
Figueroa recently received two years' probation as punishment for witnessing a cop kill her son. Her other son, Adrian — who still has a bullet buried in his collarbone — accepted a deal of three years in prison to avoid a life behind bars.
On February 27, David Bonilla Fernández, wearing a white polo, spiky hair and an expression free of emotion, walked into San Juan's central courthouse. Cops were waiting for him. Five days earlier, they had distributed photos of Bonilla and three others surrounding Ramos moments before his murder at the SanSe festival. Prosecutors had charged Bonilla in absentia, and the scrawny 24-year-old had arrived to turn himself in.
But there was no relief for Ramos's family. Bonilla hasn't confessed, and the video evidence against him is thin. Unless terrified witnesses can be persuaded to testify, a jury will likely let him off.
In fact, Bonilla could be strolling around free even earlier. Last November 4, Puerto Rican voters rejected an amendment that would have revoked the automatic right of accused criminals to bond out. So if Bonilla can come up with $120,000, he will walk.
Jerry Roque is singing. He's standing in Tex-Chick's charcoal kitchen, scratching out something by Shakira, with his hat askew and his earbuds draping like loose pearls near his lobes. He grins as he spins to the counter behind him — nimble for a man of his heft — crunching and crushing a trio of yellowed plantains into the most authentic Puerto Rican mofongo Houston knows.
"Oye mami, vuelvete loca!" He laughs, cupping the plantain mash, flipping it into its traditional circular cast. It's a clear Saturday afternoon, and an autographed photo of Sonia Sotomayor stands above, and Roque, still smiling, parries the Spanish orders at Tex-Chick with another round of Shakira's muerdeme-la-boca!
He seems at home here, twirling in the cocina and tossing another round of alcapurrias for those waiting. He seems perfectly fine with the pork and the pollo and the knowledge that he's working at the finest Puerto Rican restaurant in the city.
But when you sit with Roque — before the morning shift, before the line curls to the benches outside — and you begin asking about the home he left four months ago in Puerto Rico, his eyes jump and his lilt goes soft. The man who'd been pattering through a Spanish-English chimera, speech speeding like a cigarette boat, turns short.
"The opportunities here in Houston are just much, much better than you know in Puerto Rico," he says, Lajara translating. "And I miss the beaches — the beaches there are all year-round. But back home, there are problems. It's ugly."
Despite his scattered tattoos and facial scruff, he says again that the murders and the drugs and the muerte weren't for him. His friends, maybe, but him — he couldn't. Because he has a pair of daughters back home. Twins: Jerriares and Jerrieles. Sixteen months old. They're in Caguas, learning their first words, taking their first steps, with Roque's mother and father and ex-wife nearby.
They're still there, with San Juan only 20 miles away. Drive a half hour from Roque's home and you can find Ramos's blood-washed pavement. Drive a few city blocks and you can see the cops waiting for a drug deal — for a swap to bust, or not, as they see fit. Step down the street, but leave the daughters in the house, because these drug runners and gang men — their bullets don't discriminate between boricuas.
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Roque talks about how he needs to bring his daughters here — for the money, for the safety. Tex-Chick may be a boricua restaurant, and there may be thousands of puertorriqueños swelling this city, but this isn't Puerto Rico. To Roque, Houston is a haven.
But he knows he needs more funds to move from the apartment in north Houston and find a better place for his family, allowing them to join the Puerto Rican doctors and engineers and cocineros who have recently left their island home. He knows he has to improve his lot here before his daughters can find someplace safer. Because, as he says, the ones dying aren't simply those on the wrong end of a spilled beer or a stolen pistol.
He's here, and his daughters are there, alongside Pesquera, alongside the corruption, alongside the zero-sum world of the gangs and hits and the War on Drugs. Back in Puerto Rico. "And I will bring my daughters here. I...am worried. I am worried, because they kill innocents."