Mural created by residents of the Candelaria projects in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

Mural created by residents of the Candelaria projects in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

Abuse of Power Confronted By The People:
The Police Stories of Candelaria (Puerto Rico) and New York City

By Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera

December 7, 2006

A woman walks across a courtyard littered with garbage and debris in between several residential buildings holding the hand of her young child. She is suddenly approached by a small contingent of police officers, who then proceed to search her and her belongings and force her to disrobe her child from the waist down and explore her child's private areas to see if drugs have been stored there.

A young man is hurrying across the courtyards as well. He is addicted to drugs and it shows. The police know this. They stop him and forcibly search him, beating him as they do and he offers little resistance, his small emaciated frame crumbles with each blow. They force him to drop his pants in front of scores of witnesses and mock his genitalia publicly. They load him into their squad car, drive him several towns away, and abandon him in the middle of nowhere, far from home. He walks dozens of miles home alone in the middle of the night.

This is everyday life for some of the residents in the projects known as Candelaria in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Much like the projects here in New York, these are marginalized, forgotten communities, where people struggle to survive amidst economic poverty, crime, drugs, and neglect.

The police here are reported to conduct illegal searches like these all the time in these projects, or caserios, as they are called here.

Children have told stories of seeing police forcibly enter their homes and of seeing officers beat their parents, arrest them, and even planting weapons in the home to justify their home invasion. Local residents tell stories of being spontaneously pepper sprayed in the face for no good reason. These are tales full of disturbing violations.

Because of the fact that many addicts come to use the center courtyard as their place to cop and get high, they are usually the police's first and easiest targets. But residents have also been targeted and abused.

As we in New York react with horror and anger over the 50-shot murder of Sean Bell, it is useful to look across the oceans with solidarity to similar anti-police-brutality struggles. The communities in Puerto Rico are inextricably linked to our communities of color here. There are close to 1 million Puerto Ricans here in NYC, many of whom are new arrivals, many of whom came from rough parts of town who know these stories too well. The stories of Candelaria and of Sean Bell are all too familiar to them and to the rest of us with ties both to the island and to our communities here in the States.

What occurs in Candelaria is the apex of a police force run wild, of the failure of its policing structure, of the failure of government and governance and supervision. It is a model of abuse of power, of citizenry, and of human dignity. It is disgraceful.

We in New York know these violations well, to some degree. It was here that an innocent man had a broomstick forced into his rectum and his mouth by a police officer; it was here where the infamous 41 shots fired by police at an innocent civilian took place; it was here that a young man was killed by a police choke hold due to the football game he played in front of his house. And it was here two weeks ago where officers pumped 50 shots at a man who must have certainly gunned his engine at the prospect of being attacked by men with guns who didn't identify themselves as cops before they fired, killing him on his wedding day before he could take his vows.

Our communities of color, economically deprived and raped and neglected - those are the communities both in Puerto Rico and New York and elsewhere that suffer the wrath of power gone unchecked, of poor supervision, disdain for those looked down upon because of their place in the social stratum, because of arrogance, lack of accountability, pathology, as well as a generalized sense of violence permeating entire societies.

Puerto Rico has a special context to consider. The island must be viewed against a backdrop which illustrates a politically powerless system in a subservient relationship to the United States. All major decisions come from Washington. Our people are locked into an abusive colonial relationship with the colonial master. This is not only accurate but complete with double meaning and psychological significance. Indeed, just as the FBI runs rampant on the island without regard to law and without accountability murdering prominent activists and harassing and watching independence supporters, the police in Candelaria internalize the colonial master and in turn terrorize their own people.

Here in NYC, our communities and community organizations are galvanizing local outrage over the actions of these officers. The generalized rejection of their actions must come from the people and accountability demanded from the echelons of power.

In Candelaria, Mayaguez, community and grassroots organizations worked with the people to listen and to organize. The result was weekly political education meetings based in the community which eventually led to the people reclaiming part of their environment: their homes, their courtyards, their neglected recreational facilities. They reclaimed their central basketball court and created in the court a people's mural, created by one of their own, who himself is engulfed in his own struggles with addiction. The people came out en masse on Sunday, December 3rd to repaint their basketball court, reclaiming their ownership over their homes and themselves. They supported the creation of the mural as well, a mural which read “Dale Candela Al Abuso Policiaco” or loosely translated “Fight Against Police Abuse”. The press was called and when they responded, the people exploded with courage and outrage.

The issue received widespread coverage all over TV and radio. Since the murder of independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios by the FBI in September 2005, dozens of murals have popped up across Puerto Rico, giving birth to a movement of spontaneous popular expression through these murals as acts of resistance, defiance, and outrage.

In NYC, community groups and known activists were able to galvanize and organize that community’s anger and demand action from City Hall, which actually responded in ways unheard of, at least in comparison to previous administrations. The Mayor denounced the incident as unacceptable and reached out to the community and family. Still, the people will continue to demand for action against the officers and for some change to alter this trend of abuse that overwhelmingly occurs against poor young men of color.

The residents of Candelaria continue their struggle to reclaim their dignity and rights, supported by activists from an organization called La Nueva Escuela (the New School, who are young people conducting popular and political education in marginalized communities across the island) and from members of the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

After the cameras left on Monday, December 4th and after activists and organizers went home, local housing officials ordered the mural removed, much to the outrage of the residents. These folks worked hard to make that statement heard across the island - especially the children who stayed up late Sunday night to finish the mural as part of their own expression of anger and pain for what they have seen and witnessed.

The mural is gone (for now), but the people of Candelaria have seen the power of organizing, of advocacy, of tactics + strategy, of utilizing community organizations and the media. Local police commanders have promised an investigation conducted by internal affairs.

Indeed, a simple mural is not going to suddenly change conditions there, like the marches in NYC won't prevent another 50-bullet incident from occurring. But the residents of the Candelaria projects have had enough and our communities in these 5 boroughs have had enough. The residents are losing their fear of retribution and have taken the first step of breaking psychologically with the terror they have been subjected to by the police. As we speak, they continue to meet to plan a response, to plan a new mural, and have sought out a sympathetic attorney willing to file for an injunction (to prevent the removal of any future mural) and a class action lawsuit against the Police Department of Puerto Rico. Even the scores of addicted brothers and sisters declared they would defend the murals from destruction.

Fifty bullets have once again brought attention to the issues faced by the young men in our communities. It remains to be seen what NYPD's Internal Affairs investigation will determine and what actions City Hall may take. However, it is clear that Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, Anibal Carrasquillo, Hilton Vega, all those unjustly murdered by rogue cops deserve justice. And their communities are taking action to seek that justice.

In New York City and in Mayaguez, it is the people that are the driving force behind the struggle for justice. They are rising up in demand of their dignity and their natural rights. And as they rise and resist, change is inevitable - and for a people subjected to over 100 years of foreign political control, this inevitable change will also lead to freedom from the larger abuses and neglect of American colonialism in Puerto Rico.

(for more coverage on this issue in Spanish, please visit:,,,, and

Also see: to read an interview with the late and great Richie Perez, founder of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, where he discusses cases of police brutality in New York City