Puerto Rico is getting ready to head to the polls next week and make two big decisions — whether they should limit the right to bail for murderous crimes and whether the number of legislators in their Capitol should be reduced by almost a third.
The controversial referendum ballot on Aug. 19 could, if passed, amend the Puerto Rican constitution. That Sunday, voters will be asked two questions:
- Do they approve of reducing the number of legislators in the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico from 78 to 56 members?
- Do they approve of limiting the right to remain free on bail before being convicted of those who are accused of the following crimes: murder with premeditation, deliberation or stalking; murder committed during a home robbery; murder in the midst of sexual assault or kidnapping; murder while firing a firearm from a motor vehicle or in a public open place; and murdering an officer of the law in the line of duty.
The question on the constitutional amendment about bail has been by far the most controversial one. If it were to pass, the amendment would give a judge the right to decide whether the accused will be granted or denied the right to bail. The only judges that have that power in Puerto Rico today are federal judges in the United States District Court.
Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño, whose government proposed the changes, and the New Progressive Party (PNP), of which he is president, are actively campaigning in favor of these amendments.
“The only thing this measure will do is equip judges in Puerto Rico’s courts with the same rules federal judges have, solely and exclusively in murder cases… certain murder cases,” Fortuño said in May, shortly after signing the law that allows for the referendum. He said he had no doubt both referendum questions would pass.
“In the referendum, if you don’t vote, they win. For your safety, vote yes,” reads a controversial PNP ad, which also includes pictures of two murder suspects making a rude gesture at the camera.
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At the moment, the debate in Puerto Rico is heated. Fortuño has been heavily criticized by his opponents, most recently former Puerto Rican Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, from whom Fortuño took the reins of the country in 2009. Acevedo Vilá — who is a member of the PNP’s main rival, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) — told VOXXI that he decided to speak out because this is a matter of civil rights.
“As ex-governor, I have limited myself in making public remarks, but this time this is about two proposed amendments to the Constitution of the Commonwealth,” said Acevedo Vilá, who is a lawyer. “It is a serious matter, because amending the constitution affects future generations. I feel that my duty as ex-governor is to express my opinion and share my experience in this matter.”
His opinion, which echos that of some other critics, is that the referendum is a political move ahead of elections. There are less than 90 days separating the referendum and the general election in Puerto Rico.
“Never before in the history of Puerto Rico had a governor mixed an amendment to the constitution with an electoral campaign,” Acevedo Vilá told VOXXI.
But Fortuño’s measure also comes at a time when crime in Puerto Rico has skyrocketed, and the Puerto Rico Police Department — which has had three different chiefs of police in as many years — has been accused of negligence and inability to do its job. There was a particularly bloody weekend in June when there were 17 murders in two days.
Last year’s statistics were record-breaking, with 1,136 murders — 160 more than in 2010. The previous record had been set in 1994, with 995 murders. A referendum similar to the one on next week’s ballot was taken to the voters back then, and 53 percent rejected it.
“There are no studies — none — that show that the rise of crime in Puerto Rico has something to do with the right to remain free on bail,” Acevedo Vilá told VOXXI, adding that innocent people could become victims of the amendment. “On the contrary, studies show that people committing crime in Puerto Rico are not people who are free on bail, and that is why this is a hoax.
“They want to make people believe that the peak in crime is the fault of constitutional rights, which is not true,” the former governor added.
Not everyone in the PPD is against the proposal to limit bail. Puerto Rico Sen. Alejandro García Padilla, the party’s president — who will be Fortuño’s main rival on election day — supports it. But the party won’t take an official stance on the measure, leaving members to decide what they think is best. Acevedo Vilá commended García Padilla for this.
Fortuño, on the other hand, seized on the apparent flip flop for his re-election campaign, blurring the lines between the referendum on the 19th and the general election in November. In May, Fortuño said García Padilla’s track record in the Puerto Rican senate — voting against the administration’s initiatives to fight crime — contradicts his position now, which the governor said is pure politics.
“The people have to choose between indecision and his political measuring and the leadership we have been providing,” the governor told a Puerto Rican radio station.
Meanwhile, former governor Acevedo Vilá said that there are many ways to reduce crime on the island, and that one of the most important things Fortuño could do is strengthen the area of police investigations. He added that out of every 10 murders in Puerto Rico, seven cases never see an arrest.
“Our problem is not bail,” he said. “Our problem is that in Fortuño’s government, crimes go without solving.”