Police Brutality, Racism, and the Afro-Latinx Community in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Racism BELatina
Police guard the governor’s mansion entrance on 14 July 2019 in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

Puerto Rico’s law enforcement agents were briefly subject to the critical eye of media coverage this summer, following reports of excessive force being used against the people of Puerto Rico as they demanded the resignation of former governor Ricardo Rosselló. But abuses of power within the system persist in lower-profile encounters, especially between law enforcement and Afro-Latinx communities. 

This week, The Guardian published two pieces in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, drawing the spotlight to police violence in Puerto Rico against the Afro-Latinx population on the island, including black Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who bear the brunt of racial biases and flat-out targeting from law enforcement. The paper pointed out that the Puerto Rican government does not track the racial-ethnic identities of victims of police brutality; without this data, the racism within the system is rendered invisible. Listening to the people, though, you hear a very clear narrative of law enforcement using disproportionate force and racial profiling against Afro-Latinx communities and individuals on the island. 

“The police are the same as in the United States, the only difference is that here they don’t kill us,” Nina Figueroa explained to the paper in a piece published on Wednesday. Figueroa participated in the summer protests, but despite not having done anything illegal, she shared that she had been arrested three times. “I’ve seen black people being policed at the entrance of the shops, how they follow me and they don’t do anything to my friends or to white people,” she added. 

In case you haven’t heard of the Pulitzer Center, they are a media organization that partners with journalists to present deeper or more comprehensive coverage of issues and stories that may be relevant but might otherwise be overlooked without the support of grants or fellowships from institutions like the Pulitzer Center. So, following Wednesday’s piece, The Guardian ran another one that covers racism and police violence in Puerto Rico — specifically in the context of Dominicans living on the island, some of whom are there as undocumented residents. The Guardian cited an estimate of approximately 200,000 to 300,000 Dominicans who are in Puerto Rico. Undocumented Dominicans currently live under the same threat of deportation as people living on the US mainland. 

But deportation isn’t the only issue that Dominicans face. Many of the Dominicans in Puerto Rico are black, which immediately makes them vulnerable to police violence; the fact that black residents are perceived to be Dominican (rather than Puerto Rican) also saddles any Afro-Latinx person on the island with the xenophobia and racism waged against the Dominican population. There’s also the issue of socioeconomic segregation. “You can still point out where the Dominicans live, it’s like they are segregated to certain areas,” a sociology professor at the University of Puerto Rico told the paper. “Those areas are identified as poor neighborhoods and areas with high crime rate and more police patrolling.” 

Aside from making it more likely that people living within these communities live without access to adequate or proportionate resources, this segregation can heighten the impact that natural disasters like hurricanes can have on those populations. Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a professor from Columbia University, noted in The Root a couple of years ago that disaster relief following Maria “tended to come faster to less affected but more affluent and whiter cities,” even when places like Loiza were hit particularly hard.