Written by Patricia Mazzei
The terrifying storm of gunfire broke out in the dark on Monday, piercing the early evening calm at a public housing complex near the University of Puerto Rico with hundreds of loud shots. Women screamed and dogs barked. After it was over, five people lay dead. A sixth person who was injured later died.
The shootout, its piercing sound captured on videos that were widely shared on social media, unnerved people in San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, where authorities have faced a rash of drug crime and other violence. The mass shooting on Monday, a holiday, came a day after two men were gunned down in broad daylight on the side of a busy highway in front of another public housing complex in what the police suspect was a drug-related double murder.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez held an urgent meeting of public safety administrators on Tuesday to review the violence over the long weekend and address broader concerns about the island’s stubbornly high crime rate, much of it attributed to gang violence.
Elmer Román, the public safety secretary, said after the meeting that police presence would be stepped up at public housing complexes. Officers will be working 12-hour shifts so more of them can be on duty.
“We know we can’t keep doing more of the same,” Román said. “This has to end now.”
But he offered few details of what law enforcement would start doing differently and acknowledged that a shortage of police officers has not helped.
“I don’t want to offer excuses,” Román said. “These crimes, these sort of ambushes, are difficult to prevent in many circumstances, because I can’t have a cop on every corner.”
On Tuesday morning, more than 12 hours after the shooting at the Ernesto Ramos Antonini housing complex in the Río Piedras neighborhood, the bodies of five of the people killed — four men and one woman — remained covered on the ground outside as the police gathered evidence on the scene. The bodies were removed by early afternoon.
The police had recovered more than 1,000 bullet casings of different calibers, including long guns, suggesting links to the illegal drug trade, Lt. José Cruz, director of the San Juan Criminal Investigations Bureau’s homicide division, told El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest daily newspaper.
Dennise Longo, the justice secretary, said she assigned three prosecutors to the site because there was so much evidence to process. She urged people with information about the shooting to cooperate with law enforcement.
Neighbors stayed indoors much of the day. Some of them said they were too scared to send their children to school, so they kept them home.
“I’m still overcome — it was horrible,” said Carmen M. Rivera Wilson, a 61-year-old retiree who has lived in the complex since she was 7. “Many massacres have happened here, but never like this. Five people? Never.”
When the gunfire began, Rivera said she hit the floor and hugged her dogs.
Her sister-in-law, Bilda Ortíz, 70, dropped by on Tuesday to see how Rivera was holding up. Ortíz used to live in the same complex and said she had fond memories of the place. But, she added, in bad times, “It was like Iraq or Syria.”
Henry Escalera, the police commissioner, told reporters that the shooting began shortly after 6:30 p.m. when a group of assailants arrived at the complex carrying long guns. The gunmen killed three men at a plaza in front of one building and another man and a woman some distance away.
The plaza had, at least at one point, been a local spot to buy drugs, according to Lt. Cruz, though the police have not yet determined whether the shooting was drug-related. One video showed several people wearing dark clothes shooting, muzzle flashes everywhere, and driving away in a pair of white cars.
Law enforcement officials identified the victims as Emmanuel Enrique Báez Padilla, 43; Jordan Junior Castillo Cordero, 25; Ángel Henríquez Agosto, 21; Kathia Matos Sandoval, 26; Alexis Antonio Padilla Rodríguez, 21, and Ermes Omar Sanjurjo, 25. Padilla Rodríguez died Tuesday at the hospital. Henríquez Agosto had an outstanding federal warrant in connection with a morning shooting on Jan. 6 in which a man was killed in front of a nightclub in Isla Verde, near the San Juan airport.
On Sunday, Juan A. La Luz Pizarro, 50, and Carlos D. Pérez Rosado, 52, were killed next to the Rafael Martínez Nadal highway in Guaynabo, west of San Juan. A chilling video of the shooting showed a man firing into a white SUV, which then rolled back after its occupants had apparently been incapacitated. The gunman and at least one other man then fled in a white car. Both victims had criminal records, the local news media reported: Pérez Rosado on drug charges, and La Luz Pizarro on weapons charges.
In June, three people were beaten to death in the municipality of Cayey, and three people were killed and six injured in a shooting in the municipality of Ciales. Last month, one person died and four were injured in a lengthy shootout in the Puerta de Tierra neighborhood near Old San Juan.
Escalera, the police commissioner, said the murder rate on the island remains lower than it was in 2018. Earlier this year, Douglas Leff, the special agent in charge of the FBI in San Juan, warned of a “crisis of violence” and asked for additional resources for Puerto Rico.