SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — It was always Puerto Rico's most famous slum, and the most picturesque, but the extent of criminality in La Perla apparently extended far beyond the colonial walls and cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.
U.S. federal agents and Puerto Rican police swept through La Perla on Wednesday, breaking down doors and rousting people from sleep in what authorities said was the largest and most comprehensive raid ever in the community perched at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Nearly 70 people had been arrested on drug and weapons charges by Thursday and several dozen more were being sought, said Javier Pena, special agent in charge of the Caribbean division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
La Perla, a warren of tightly packed homes just a short walk from Puerto Rico's best known tourist district and main government offices, has long been known as a retail drug bazaar. But Pena said a two-year investigation also revealed that the chief drug gang based there was receiving large shipments of South American narcotics and distributing them across the island, becoming the largest heroin supplier in the U.S. territory. An indictment alleges they cleared at least $20 million though officials say that's likely a conservative estimate of their total earnings.
The scope of the organization made it a target of law enforcement, and so did its location, just below the colonial ramparts where thousands of tourists stroll and take photos, gawking at La Perla from a safe distance, after disembarking from the nearby cruise ship piers.
"It's more of an affront, more of an insult to the island that we have one of the biggest drug organizations operating in one of the prettiest places in Puerto Rico and where our government is," Pena said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Some local politicians were surprised by the arrest of Jorge Gomez Gonzalez, president of the Association for the Rescue and Development of La Perla, who was charged in an indictment with being the leader of the drug trafficking organization. Gomez has been the acknowledged community leader of the slum, has been widely quoted in local media and has represented the people in meetings with Gov. Luis Fortuno.
Gomez has not yet entered a plea, but he told reporters covering his arrest that he had nothing to do with the drug trade.
Natividad Gomez, a social worker who has helped run a community center in La Perla for 17 years and is not related to the jailed community leader, said she couldn't talk about the charges but that Gomez was esteemed in the neighborhood as someone who could help resolve disputes or problems.
"He's just a person who helps his community and he works very hard," said Gomez, as she took a break from running a summer camp for children from La Perla hours after the police raid. "He defends the people and gets them what they need."
Also arrested was Santiago Hernandez Rosa, the alleged second-in-command, who was president of a local dockworkers union. The indictment accuses him of helping smuggle cocaine, heroin and other drugs into Puerto Rico.
None of the major figures has yet entered a plea, and the case is expected to be a drawn-out affair, with U.S. authorities moving to seize about 50 properties in La Perla and elsewhere in the island as alleged proceeds of the drug trade.
The investigation provided a glimpse into life in La Perla, a place where few venture unless they live there or seek to engage in illegal activities. The indictment alleges that the organization allowed only people born in the slum to sell drugs there except in a designated area. It says the organization prohibited the sale of crack because of its harmful effects and hosted free concerts with reggaeton and hip hop artists.
The organization had its dealers working shifts 24 hours a day and distributed heroin, cocaine and other drugs to public housing complexes throughout Puerto Rico, Pena said.
Following the raid, the crooked streets of the slum were largely deserted. People expressed annoyance at the rare sight of police officers, though few were willing to give their names or discuss the arrests.
Gomez, the social worker, said La Perla did not deserve its outsize reputation for criminality. "People here are very proud and they have a strong sense of belonging," she said. "Just like in all of Puerto Rico, all of the world, there are all kinds of people, good and bad, those who work, those who don't."
Sergio Negron, a 50-year-old retired chef who has lived there about three years, dismissed the police operation as harassment. La Perla, he insisted, was an inexpensive and safe place to live. The only people selling drugs there, he said, were outsiders.
"In Ocean Park, there are a lot of people selling drugs too but you don't see anyone busting down their doors," Negron said, referring to an affluent neighborhood of San Juan a short drive down the coast.
Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, the U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico, and the island's police chief, Jose Figueroa Sancha, told reporters that the operation in La Perla would not be single-day effort and that officers would regularly patrol there to prevent the neighborhood from being a lawless zone.
"It's going to be harder for them to do business there from now on," Rodriguez said.