They Don't Care if We Die: The Violence of Urban Policing in Puerto Rico

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American Studies


In this essay, I trace how punitive policing in Puerto Rico has deepened existing racial, spatial, and class-based inequalities and further limited life chances for some of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable citizens. To demonstrate how policing intensified forms of violent exclusion, I focus on mano dura contra el crimen, or iron fist against crime, a law enforcement initiative that sought to eliminate drug-related crime and violence by targeting public housing and other low-income spaces around the island for joint military and police raids during the 1990s. I argue that mano dura promoted an uneven distribution of risk, harm, and death by tacitly allowing the proliferation of violence within economically and racially marginalized communities. Although law enforcement agents engaged in acts of intimidation, harassment, and brutality during mano dura operations, it is perhaps the measures they implemented to concentrate violence in low-income communities that most contributed to the premature death and proximity to harm that barrio and public housing residents experienced. Furthermore, police and other state officials positioned the alarmingly high levels of drug-related violence and death occurring within the confines of these classed and racialized urban spaces as a necessary by-product of the island’s “war on drugs.” Ultimately, police intervention under the auspices of protecting el pueblo puertorriqueño, or the Puerto Rican people, as well as those moments when police deliberately “failed” to prevent violence related to the informal drug economy resulted in greater exposure to harm and death for marginalized communities on the island.


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