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Puerto Rico trims murder rate

The federal government helped. It teamed with local police to lock up more offenders.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Francisco Laviera was shot to death in broad daylight when he tried to help a neighbor who was being beaten with a pipe.

On an island with a per-capita murder rate six times higher than the rest of the United States, Laviera's killing was Puerto Rico's 823d this year.

Unlike the highly publicized murders of boxing champion Hector "Macho" Camacho or that of the publicist who was robbed and burned alive this month, Laviera's death did not spark social movements on Facebook or Twitter.

"No one will ever be able to stop these killings," lamented Juan Quiles, a police officer who guarded Laviera's bullet-strewn murder scene last month.

But authorities on a crusade to lock up violent criminals are trying to keep a different count, one much more difficult to quantify: the number of people who didn't die.

After coming under scathing criticism for a lackluster response to a surge in the Caribbean drug trade and the violence that accompanied it, the federal government has teamed with local law enforcement to target gangs and robbers caught with guns. The feds appear to have finally found a strategy to tamp the unprecedented murder rate, which succeeded where air patrols and cutter deployments could not: locking up the bad guys.

"You're never going to see a headline: 'This is how many murders were prevented,' " said Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico's police superintendent, responsible for what is essentially an island-wide police force. By November, "175 fewer people were murdered in Puerto Rico this year. That's an 18 percent drop. That's huge. We'll do another 175 next year and keep doing that until it's at a manageable level."

In 2011, Puerto Rico broke its own record by logging 1,135 homicides - 30 killings per 100,000 residents.

Pesquera, the head of security for PortMiami, was tapped in April by the outgoing governor of Puerto Rico to tackle the soaring murder rate. A former head of the Miami FBI office and Broward Sheriff's Office administrator, Pesquera is best known for rounding up a ring of Cuban spies, making Fidel Castro his No. 1 nemesis.

Law enforcement authorities and politicians in Puerto Rico say the federal government "abandoned" the island of four million U.S. citizens because it lacks political muscle. As federal resources for battling drug traffic were being sent to the Mexican border and even South Florida, the amount of cocaine seized by the Coast Guard in the San Juan sector increased fivefold this year.

Meanwhile, 15 percent of Customs positions in Puerto Rico remained unfilled, and a Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine office was shuttered due to budget constraints, according to a congressional hearing this year.

When the Coast Guard commissioned new state-of-the-art, fast-response cutters, they went to Miami and Key West.

"It was worse than I expected. I expected problems, but not of this magnitude," Pesquera said. "We are American citizens. We deserve better. We should not be panhandling."

Pesquera blames politics and a lack of leadership in Puerto Rico for the problems that have plagued the police department, which last year was the subject of a blistering U.S. Department of Justice report that described an underpaid, untrained, "critically broken" force.

But local law enforcement authorities argue that about 75 percent of the island's murders are drug-related, and the drugs come in by air and sea - which is federal jurisdiction.

After complaints last year from the governor and the island's representative in Washington, the feds began to take notice.

The Department of Justice teamed up with island prosecutors and police to create the Illegal Firearm and Violent Crime Reduction Initiative.

The new cutters from Miami were lent to Puerto Rico, and employees for various federal agencies were deployed on temporary stints. The Department of Homeland Security launched task forces for drugs and guns coming in by mail and cargo.

By October, DHS said coordinated operations resulted in the seizure of more than 16,000 pounds of drugs and the arrest of more than 100 people.

More than 500 people have been charged in federal court with crimes ranging from carjacking to home-invasion robbery.

Suspects who use automatic weapons with obliterated serial numbers, have prior felony offenses, or rob a place of business are being charged in federal court.

The idea is to skirt the Puerto Rican courts, which allow bail even in murder cases.

Experts say bail discourages witnesses from cooperating. Now, more victims are cooperating with authorities.

The results have worked beyond expectations: The five districts where the project was launched - San Juan, Carolina, Bayamon, Caguas, and Ponce - averaged a 23 percent drop in homicides.