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The Strange Case of Puerto Rico and the Death Penalty

[All links lead to Spanish-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

During the “5º Congreso Contra la Pena de Muerte” (5th World Congress Against the Death Penalty), held recently in Madrid, Spain, participants assembled to discuss the status of Puerto Rico. In this third and last part of a collaborative effort between Periodismo Ciudadano (PC) and Global Voices in Spanish, PC reporter Elisa Moreno Gil interviews Puerto Rican attorneys and activists in order to understand this Caribbean country's special situation with respect to the imposition of the death penalty in the federal court system. To access other articles in this series, click here and here.

Owing to its colonial history and its current relationship with the United States, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not free to fully exercise the second article of its constitution, which establishes the abolition of the death penalty.

During the 5th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Madrid, Spain, we interviewed the following representatives for insight into Puerto Rico's difficult position in dealing with capital punishment cases: Carmelo Campos Cruz, president of the Comisión sobre los Derechos de las Víctimas de Delito (Commission on the Rights of Crime Victims) formed by the Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Bar Association); Kevin M. Rivera Medina, president of the Comisión sobre la Pena de Muerte (Commission on the Death Penalty), also formed by the Puerto Rico Bar Association; and Evelyn Román of Amnesty International.

De izquierda a derecha: Carmelo Campos Cruz, Evelyn Román y Kevin Miguel Rivera Medina.

Left to right: Carmelo Campos Cruz, Evelyn Román, and Kevin Miguel Rivera Medina.

In his presentation entitled “Puerto Rico, the Death Penalty's Hidden Dimension”, Carmelo Campos Cruz spoke about how the United States Congress enacts legislation that overrides the will of the Puerto Rican people. In Puerto Rico, capital punishment may be applied on the island in certain cases that fall within US federal jurisdiction.

Puerto Rico has not executed any of its prison inmates since 1927, in spite of being a country with one of the highest crime rates. Not even recent multiple shootings such as La Tómbola have managed to sway Puerto Ricans in support of the capital punishment option in federal court.

Periodismo Ciudadano (PC): These conferences have wide-ranging implications for the international community, but they are usually held in European countries such as France or Spain. What impact do they have in Latin America, particularly in Puerto Rico?

Carmelo Campos-Cruz (CC): En el caso de América Latina donde se ha abolido (la pena de muerte) en todos los países, excepto Cuba y Guatemala, el impacto que tiene no es tanto, no es un asunto que se hable mucho en la región.  En el caso de Puerto Rico es importante porque nosotros tenemos la aplicación de la pena de muerte no por nuestros tribunales sino por imposición del Gobierno de los Estados Unidos; así que, estar en este tipo de actividades, compartir con compañeros y compañeras de otras organizaciones, conocer sus experiencias, hacer alianzas… es un ingrediente importantísimo para nosotros poder ser efectivos en nuestra lucha en nuestra patria.

Carmelo Campos-Cruz (CC): In the case of Latin America, where [the death penalty] has been abolished in all countries but Cuba and Guatemala, the impact is not so great, it's not an issue that gets talked about often in the region. In the case of Puerto Rico it's important because we have the application of the death penalty, not by our own courts, but through the imposition of the United States government; so participating in these kinds of activities, sharing with colleagues from other organizations, learning about their experiences, establishing partnerships…it's an incredibly important element for us to be able to be effective in our struggle in our own country.

PC:  Fifty-four percent of the Puerto Rican population maintains an abolitionist posture. However, this figure has diminished by ten percentage points during the past few years [according to a survey published by the Spanish newspaper El País on April 12, 2013]. Do you believe this is due to US influence on the island?

CC: Las estadísticas hay que saber cómo tratarlas. La otra encuesta que te estabas refiriendo estaba hecha con una metodología diferente. En esta encuesta no es solamente sí y no, sino que hay “en algunas circunstancias”, “no sé”. Si fueran a calibrarse seguramente serían resultados bastante similares.

Pero vamos a asumir la premisa de la pregunta, de que ha descendido 10 puntos. Es que Puerto Rico se encuentra en un momento donde la criminalidad es muy elevada, es de los países con la tasa de asesinatos más alta, con una tasa de resolución de asesinatos muy baja, un sentido de impunidad muy alto, lo que es una frustración que puede llevar al pueblo a reclamar ese tipo de medidas, que son inefectivas y van contra los derechos humanos, pero que sin una educación efectiva son traídas a la mesa para discusión.

CC: One has to know how to interpret statistics. The survey you were referring to was conducted using a different methodology. In that survey, respondents didn't just answer “yes” or “no”; there were the additional options of “in some circumstances” and “not sure.”  If the two surveys had been equally calibrated, they certainly would have yielded similar results.

But let's assume the premise of your question, that there has been a ten-point drop. Puerto Rico is currently going through a period of elevated crime, it's a country with one of the highest murder rates, a very low murder resolution rate, and a very high sense of impunity among criminals, and this is a frustration that might lead the people to demand these kinds of measures, which are ineffective and violate human rights, but without effective education get brought to the table for discussion.

PC: What does the term “locally inapplicable” mean for you?

CC: Estás haciendo referencia a un término que se utiliza en el Artículo 9 de la Ley de Relaciones Federales con Puerto Rico, que es la ley del Gobierno de EEUU que rige las relaciones entre puerto Rico y EEUU. Y ese artículo dice que las leyes que no sean “localmente inaplicables” van a aplicar. La realidad es que por las decisiones de los propios tribunales estadounidenses, es el propio Congreso quién decide cuáles leyes son inaplicables y cuáles no. Así que, un ejemplo bastante craso de lo que es la falta de autodeterminación de un pueblo cuanto aún lo que aplique o no lo que aplique está en la potestad de otra parte.

CC: You're referring to a term that is used in Article 9 of the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, which is the US government's law that guides the relations between Puerto Rico the United States. And that article states that any law which is not “locally inapplicable” can be implemented. The reality is that because the decisions are made in those same US courts, it is that same Congress that gets to decide which laws are inapplicable and which are not. So, it amounts to a fairly serious case of a population's lack of self-determination when the other side keeps the authority to decide what applies or doesn't apply.

PC: One last question: Why do you think Puerto Rico stands out for its high number of citizens in favor of abolition? Does it come down to education, or to tradition, perhaps?

CC: Eso no es algo nuevo. Si analizamos la historia de la imposición de la pena de muerte en Puerto Rico y de actos en contra de esa imposición de la pena de muerte. Desde el siglo XVI se documentaron casos del pueblo, de sacerdotes tratando de arrebatar gente que están a punto de ser ahorcados. A principios del siglo XX de carpinteros que se negaban a construir los cadalsos para el ahorcamiento, de ferreterías que se negaban a vender maderas para hacer cadalsos, de telegrafistas que se negaban a transmitir la información de si se había realizado una ejecución o no.

Yo creo que el hecho de ser una colonia pobre, primero bajo España, segundo bajo Estados Unidos, trae un sentido que se conoce de primera mano: la injusticia de parte del Gobierno, del Estado. Ese es el sentido de lo que tú planteas como justicia es totalmente arbitrario y que se tiene en dos varas, y que si eres pobre o eres negro vas a tener unas probabilidades mayores de ser ejecutado. Y eso se ha vivido en Puerto Rico hasta la última de las ejecuciones: que eran negros, mulatos, analfabetas. Pues yo creo que ese tipo de sensibilidad es la que nos lleva a decir: “no, esta no debe ser la alternativa. Por aquí no va la cosa.” Aun con unas tasas de asesinato bastante significativas. Esa es la reflexión que yo he podido hacer en estos años.

CC: This is nothing new. If we analyze the history of the death penalty's imposition in Puerto Rico and of actions taken to prevent it, we find that, back in the 16th century, there are documented instances of priests trying to snatch criminals from the gallows before they could be hanged. From the beginning of the twentieth century, we see cases of carpenters who refused to build platforms for hangings, of hardware suppliers who refused to sell wood for hanging platforms, and of telegraph operators who refused to transmit information about whether or not an execution had taken place.

I think Puerto Rico's position of being an impoverished colony, first under Spain, then under the United States, carried with it a sense of first-hand knowledge: injustice on the part of the government, on the part of the state. It was the sense that what you considered to be justice was totally arbitrary and was measured with two different yardsticks, and that if you were poor or if you were black, you were going to have a greater probability of being executed. And that was the experience in Puerto Rico up until the last of the executions: that those being killed were black, bi-racial, illiterate. Well, I think that kind of sensitivity is what brings us to say, “No, that should not be an alternative. That isn't a viable solution.” Even in the face of our high murder rate. I've been reflecting on these things over past few years.

Kevin M. Rivera Medina (KR): Hace sobre cien años, grupos que tuvieron mucho que ver con construir y desarrollar la nación portorriqueña estuvieron muy identificados con este derecho a la vida, en contra de la esclavitud también en muchos de ellos, y en contra de la pena de muerte. Ahí tenemos desde masones hasta grupos espiritistas, que desde muchísimo tiempo llevan esta lucha en contra de la pena de muerte. Así que sí, se ha desarrollado desde hace mucho tiempo. Lo otro, como muy bien decía Carmelo, cuando especialmente ya en tiempo recientes, cuando la pena de muerte quiere imponerse por encima de lo que son los deseos puestos en la Constitución de un pueblo, la gente reacciona y lo ve, de alguna manera, casi como un ataque a lo que es la idiosincrasia de un pueblo. Así que en ese sentido hay una importancia para nosotros como pueblo.

Ahora, hay una segunda importancia, y es la importancia de la experiencia portorriqueña para el resto del mundo, y es cómo un pueblo ha tenido que estar luchando contra imposiciones extranjeras sobre las cuales no ha podido decidir, no ha tenido ninguna representación y en ese sentido nosotros seguimos ahí firmes luchando por la vida. Y como aunque recientemente se ha querido seguir imponiendo la pena de muerte en Puerto Rico y, en este caso, por las autoridades federales de Estados Unidos, todavía hay jurados que en los casos más terribles, que más le duelen al pueblo, los casos criminales que realmente nos conmocionan como ciudadanos, nosotros decimos: “no, no, no, esa no puede ser la solución, nosotros no podemos estar matando para decir que matar es malo”.

Kevin M. Rivera Medina (KR): Over a hundred years ago, groups that had a lot to do with building and developing the Puerto Rican nation were greatly identified with their right to life, over and against the slavery in which many of them found themselves, against the death penalty. Here we see people ranging all the way from Masons to spiritualist groups, and they have carried this struggle against the death penalty with them from way back. So yes, it has been developing for a long time. Another thing, as Carmelo stated very well, is that now in more recent times, when the death penalty is trying to impose itself on the wishes of a people as written down in their constitution, people react to that kind of thing, and they view it, somehow, almost as an attack on what is the identity of their people. So in that sense, this carries an importance for us as a group.

Now, there is a second importance, and that is the importance of the Puerto Rican experience for the rest of the world; it has to do with how a group of people has had to fight against outside impositions without its approval, in which it has had no representation; this is the reason we continue to stand firm in our fight for life. And it has to do with how, although recently there has been a push for the continued imposition of the death penalty in Puerto Rico, this time by federal authorities from the United States, there are still juries in the most terrible cases, cases that cause the most pain for the people, criminal cases that truly move us as citizens, who can stand up and say, “No, no, no! That can't be the solution! We can't go around killing people to show that killing is bad.”

Evelyn Román (ER): Yo creo que es una combinación de la tradición abolicionista que tiene el país y en adición a la constante educación; tanto es verdad por la sociedad civil como por las organizaciones profesionales que trabajan en cuanto a esto, si eso se le suma a la cuestión de que la pena de muerte en Puerto Rico se podría aplicar por un país extranjero o por Estados Unidos, el pueblo va en contra de nuestras propias decisiones.

Evelyn Román (ER): I think it comes down to a combination of the country's abolitionist tradition combined with constant education; this holds true in civil society and well as in professional organizations that work to this end; add to that to our general apprehension that the death penalty could be imposed in Puerto Rico by a foreign country or by the United States, which would force us to act against our own decisions.

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