How The Police in Puerto Rico Privatize Public Property

A protester raises Puerto Rico’s original, sky blue flag, associated with the independence movement, in front of PRPD cops in helmets and body armor in Old San Juan. (Carlos Berríos Polanco)

For years, the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) has guarded public property that has been illegally privatized by the state and private businesses. But no public space remains more emblematic of the police barricade that guards the so-called New World than its oldest executive mansion, La Fortaleza.

La Fortaleza has remained in use since colonial times and currently holds Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s office and personal residence. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, it was formerly one of the key sights to see in Old San Juan. And it remains the pride of the Puerto Rican government, who regularly uses it and the street blocked off by police in their promotional videos. 

“[La Fortaleza] is a gem but you can’t see it anymore and people lose out on that,” Old San Juan tour guide Francisco Javier Nolla told Copwatch Media. He’s been working in the historic district for more than a decade and says that the way he conducts his tour has changed since the barricade was erected during the 2019 protests. His clients typically ask him about the barricade when they pass through the area, launching him into a steady explanation of the events of 2019 and the history of “Resistance Corner.”

“[The police barricade] ruins the entire view,” Nolla continued. “If someone wants to take a picture, you have to have the barrier in there and the police behind you.”

Tourists take pictures in front of a barricade put up by police in Old San Juan. (Carlos Berríos Polanco)

The fact that Fortaleza Street is “one of the most instagrammable spots in Old San Juan” is not lost on Puerto Ricans, of course. Many know that public spaces are being taken from them so they can serve tourists. Typically, the people who take these “instagramable” pictures are tourists who rent one of the AirBnBs on the street. Police will let tourists through the barricade even in the middle of a protest where cops in battle rattle are lined up. 

A “Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans” has become cliché among residents of the United States colony, a slogan for the government- and private business-led push to oust native Puerto Ricans from places they have lived in for decades. 

The sentiment, felt by Puerto Ricans for centuries, was made crystal clear after 889 pages of a Telegram group chat made up of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, Chief of Staff Ricardo Llerandi, former Public Affairs Secretary for La Fortaleza Ramón Rosario, publicist and PNP donor Edwin Miranda, among others, were published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism in 2019.

“I see the future and it is splendid. There are no Puerto Ricans,” Miranda said in the chat.

The leak led to 15 days of mass street protests by hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans that led to Rosselló resigning in disgrace and fleeing the archipelago. It also led to a permanent police barricade being erected on Fortaleza Street, which leads to La Fortaleza (the Governor’s Mansion). 

Police on Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan stand behind a barricade with “abusadores” (abusers) spray painted on it. (Carlos Berríos Polanco)

This barricade is made up of four water-filled safety orange jersey barriers and a channelizer drum. It is typically manned by five or six police officers on any given day. And unless you are a cop or staying at one of the too-pricey-for-most AirBnBs that have slowly taken over Old San Juan, you are not going past the barricade without getting dragged away and arrested. 

“At many protests, the police attempt to establish the spaces where protest is allowed,” Executive Director of Kilómetro 0, a local copwatch, Mari Mari Narváez told Copwatch Media. In protests across the archipelago, the police tend to place their barricades far off from where the protest is supposed to take place, almost as if they were trying to cut off access, she said.

Since the 2019 protests, the intersection between Fortaleza Street and Cristo Street in front of the barricade has been called “Resistance Corner” by many because there’s some type of performance or protest there every week. Demonstrators often use the barricade as a makeshift drum to lead the chorus that is ever-present in Puerto Rican protests. It has also been used as an altar for murdered victims of domestic abuse

“One thinks that the police tend to assault people that don’t really pose a threat to them,” Narváez told Copwatch Media. 

Two months ago, famous Puerto Rican activist Tito Kayak announced to protesters that he was going to get himself “peacefully arrested” then clambered over the barricade. Kayak, a 64-year old man, was taken down by three police officers and promptly arrested. Two days later, a 16-year old was arrested for standing past the barrier while holding the Puerto Rican flag. These are just two of many examples where activists have been arrested for simply existing in land that is legally public but has effectively become a no-go zone unless you’re an enforcer for the state or a tourist.

Two weeks ago, 14 protesters were arrested, held for more than half the day, then let go without charges for jumping the barrier and chanting at La Fortaleza’s gates. After being released, they were given a manual on “how to protest,” which they say was meant to stop them from expressing their First Amendment right to protest. They were arrested even though the area past the barricade is legally public property. Many of them believe that they were held for so long as a means to criminalize protests.

Police in riot gear stand with batons in hand behind a barricade in Old San Juan. (Carlos Berríos Polanco)

There are a few exceptions as to who can pass through, of course. Activists with a meeting in La Fortaleza are sometimes escorted past by police. Broadcast journalists are allowed to set up their cameras on the second-floor veranda of an abandoned building on the corner if they arrive well before a protest starts. After arguing with a cop about his American press documents, my colleague Collin Mayfield was allowed to pass to take some pictures. I have only asked to pass once. Both my Spanish- and English-language press badges were denied.

There are no hard and fast rules as to who is allowed to pass. It simply depends on the attitude of the officer manning the entry point. But if you are just a regular Puerto Rican who wants to enjoy the beautiful architecture and history of the area, you are out of luck.

Recently, PRPD added a concrete jersey barricade behind the orange ones, likely as a response to the protests in August, where protesters pushed the barrier back into the street. In response, police then deployed riot-control munitions against protestors and journalists. They have also started deploying other barricades along Cristo Street that will likely become as permanent as the one on Fortaleza street. On days where its clear protesters will flood into the city, police will block Puerto Ricans from even entering the area.

On protest nights, there will regularly be somewhere between 50 and 200 cops behind the barricade, in riot lines, every 10 or so feet. If they decide to launch, cops will funnel past the barricade and expand outwards until they have control of the area. Given that the area is also a party hub, people will occasionally be trapped behind the riot line in restaurants and bars then escorted out like cattle.

(Copwatch Media reached out to La Fortaleza and the Municipal Government of San Juan through their publicly available email, but they did not respond to a request for comment.)

Protesters recently took down fencing illegally placed in the area surrounding Cueva del Indio. (Carlos Berríos Polanco)

One of the main things Puerto Ricans have been protesting since 2021 is the privatization of their electrical grid and their beaches. For many, the privatization of their history and of the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan is sadly par for the course in an archipelago that is once again being stripped of its people.

While activists have not been able to gain traction on reclaiming Old San Juan, many have successfully fought and won against other places where police protect public areas that have been illegally privatized. Most recently, activists flooded into the area surrounding Cueva del Indio to remove fencing that had illegally been placed around the public access path that led into the Taíno historical site by a private company. Police were present but did not intervene with activists, likely because they were heavily outnumbered.

By law, all beaches in Puerto Rico are public. There cannot be any permanent structures built within 50 meters of the maritime-terrestrial zone, where high tide ends. This law had long been ignored by private construction companies who routinely built structures inside the zone until activists like the ones at Cueva del Indio started fighting back.

At the Sol y Playa Condominium, activists fought a long battle against developers who were building a pool on top of Hawksbill sea turtle nesting grounds. Once protesters brought down the fence installed by the condominium in 2021, cops started showing up and placing their infamous orange barricades on top of the nesting grounds. By the time mass protests returned to the area in July 2022, the municipal government of Aguadilla had already deemed the construction illegal but had not done anything. Activists decided to do the work themselves even if they got arrested.

A concrete barricade with “Este muro es ilegal! Dominio Publico” (“This wall is illegal! Public domain”) spray painted on it in Rincón, Puerto Rico. (Carlos Berríos Polanco)

“I was walking, minding my business, and suddenly I saw two cops coming towards me and I knew what was coming for me,” activist Zaida Morales told Copwatch Media. She was brutally dragged through broken concrete and arrested a day before activists brought the construction down at Sol y Playa. Her wounds had to be treated at a local medical center and she was released later that day only to return to the condos.

While being held by police, she said  she overheard police officers say “‘we’re not supposed to be there’” and “‘these arrests are illegal.’” 

Her words echo what multiple activists have told me since I started covering the protest beat. Activists know that they’re not partaking in anything illegal because they are just standing in spaces that are legally public land – land they should not be barred from existing in. It is the government and police that have privatized these spaces. They enforce that illegal privatization by arresting anybody who passes their arbitrarily placed barricades.

“The police use more and more militarization techniques to control protests,” Narváez told Copwatch Media. The first time she saw less-lethal riot control munitions was during the 1999 Vieques protests against the US Navy, but they have now become commonplace at protests across Puerto Rico. 

PRPD cops with helmets, gas masks, and body armor stand in a line with batons in hand in Old San Juan. (Carlos Berríos Polanco)

The practice of creating what basically amount to permanent pseudo-military encampments is becoming more widespread across the United States and its colonies. The “sacred fence” was erected around the Justice Center in downtown Portland during the George Floyd Uprisings in 2020 and stayed up for more than a month. Cops routinely shot at people for just shaking the fence. After the Jan. 6 siege, Capitol Police and National Guard put up a fence around the US Capitol that stayed up for over 6 months and is still redeployed at the mere mention of protests.

NYC Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) and New York Police Department (NYPD) have started routinely clearing out NYC’s parks of working-class park-goers considered to be nuisances by local businesses and affluent neighborhood residents.

What these riot lines and barricades show in Puerto Rico and abroad is that police are given free reign to rule over public spaces if they can justify it by claiming they are expecting some type of “crime” that could take place in these areas. It does not matter if there are any credible threats of mass violence. Once police have taken over an area, it takes sustained efforts from activists to reclaim public spaces that have been taken from them.

Puerto Ricans have long been pushed out of their island by colonialism and gentrification. Now, the government using the police to privatize public spaces is another way they are being pushed out. 

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