Streets A 'War Zone' As Protesters Call For Puerto Rico's Governor To Resign

Jul 18, 2019
Originally published on July 18, 2019 10:35 am

Some of Puerto Rico's biggest stars rallied a crowd of many thousands in San Juan on Wednesday, calling on the island's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, to resign. It was the fifth day in a row of protests in the U.S. territory, following a leak of hundreds of pages of misogynistic and homophobic texts between the governor and his main advisers.

During the day, trap artist Bad Bunny and singer Ricky Martin were among the huge crowd that marched to the governor's mansion.

Tensions ratcheted up in the evening as protesters burst through a barricade at the governor's mansion and security forces fired tear gas at the crowd, causing many to flee into surrounding streets. A livestream from Puerto Rican news site El Nuevo Día showed chaotic scenes of demonstrators confronting riot police a few minutes after midnight local time.

By early hours Thursday, the old city of San Juan resembled a war zone, with police chasing protesters through the streets while firing rubber bullets, gas canisters and what appeared to be flash bombs.

Earlier, demonstrators wearing gas masks and hard hats set a pile of garbage on fire in a plaza, and police quickly fired tear gas at them. A street was shown littered with debris and broken glass.

As El Nuevo Día reported, police spokesperson Axel Valencia said five people were arrested and two people were reported injured.

He said several senior police officers were in the area and ordered the protesters to stand down.

"They were given verbal commands to cease and desist what they were doing. They were throwing rocks, quarter sticks of dynamite. They were throwing many things," Valencia said, according to the news site. "You all saw how close they got to the fences of the perimeter, and well, there came a moment when our personnel had to use tear gases."

The protests have been gaining momentum every day with high-profile support, including from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who led a demonstration in New York calling on Rosselló to step down.

Police used tear gas against protesters on Wednesday in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Rosselló has apologized for the texts but has insisted that he intends to remain in office.

In the private chat messages published on Saturday by Puerto Rico's Center for Investigative Journalism, the governor and his inner circle use misogynistic language to talk about women. They use homophobic language to talk about journalists and Ricky Martin. They engage in fat-shaming. They talk about manipulating the media and public opinion polls. And they make jokes about shooting the mayor of San Juan.

The governor's chief financial officers made a joke about the dead bodies that piled up in a government facility before and after Hurricane Maria in 2017. That comment has been particularly galling for many Puerto Ricans still recovering from the deadly storm nearly two years later.

The island is suffering from far more problems than the hurricane. It's been mired in an economic recession for more than a decade, including a debt crisis that has resulted in slashing public services and the imposition of a federal oversight board that has taken control of Puerto Rico's finances. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced leave the island, a trend that accelerated after the hurricane. For many residents, the chats have become a representation in black and white of the indifference they feel their leaders have for their daily struggles.

Protesters say they expect demonstrations to get bigger should the governor continue clinging to office.

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Thousands of demonstrators are calling on Rosselló to step down after a group chat was exposed that included misogynistic and homophobic comments. The sign reads "Ricky Resign."
Jose Jimenez / Getty Images


In Puerto Rico last night, the old colonial section of San Juan looked a little bit like a war zone.


KING: Police fired tear gas. They shot at protesters with rubber bullets and threw flash grenades. These protests started out peacefully during the day, but by evening, things had gotten chaotic. Puerto Rico has never really seen protests like this. People want their governor, Ricardo Rossello, to resign, but he is refusing, and so the protests keep getting bigger.

Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team is in San Juan. Hey, Adrian.


KING: So protests of this size are really unusual in Puerto Rico. You were there yesterday. What'd you see? How big was it?

FLORIDO: I mean, it's hard to say for sure how big it was - there are no official estimates - but there were many, many thousands of people. During the height of the protest, it was really hard to even just move through the streets of Old San Juan there were so many people. And you're right. It was an unprecedented night of political protest against a sitting governor. This sort of thing doesn't really happen - hasn't ever happened in Puerto Rico.

One reason it was so big was because of international famous artists from Puerto Rico - Bad Bunny, Ricky Martin, the rapper Residente - who all called on people to come out. But, you know, the other is that Puerto Ricans are just really angry. They're really angry and fed up with their governor and with their government, and they've had enough of it.

KING: Things started out, as we said, pretty peacefully during the day. And then, at night, it sort of descended into chaos. What happened?

FLORIDO: Yeah. I mean, after nightfall, sort of, you know, the energy changed at the protest. You know, you could sort of start to feel tensions rising as some of the more aggressive protesters started to confront police a little bit more. And then at some point, there was a trigger of some sort, and the tear gas started flying, and the rocks started being hurled. And then things devolved into chaos. And so it was a chaotic end to what was otherwise a very peaceful protest.

KING: Why are people so insistent that the governor resign? Remind us what he has done here.

FLORIDO: Well, the thing that sparked these protests initially over the weekend was the publication of these leaked text messages between him and members of his inner circle in which they used really offensive language to talk about political opponents, women and, really, everyday Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans were really offended by these text messages.

But, really, it was kind of the final straw for Puerto Ricans, who have been really frustrated about a lot of things on their island for a long time - the economic crisis, the fact that they feel like the government's often corrupt, cronyism, the slow response and recovery from Hurricane Maria. And then to see their leaders making light of a lot of the struggles of everyday Puerto Ricans - it just became too much, and people took to the streets.

KING: Is there any sign that Rossello is going to listen and step down, given that things are getting large and violent now?

FLORIDO: He has been insistent that he is not going to step down. He has been, you know, facing increasing pressure from, obviously, the protesters, but also his political allies, his political opponents. There has been talk within the Puerto Rican Legislature of beginning impeachment proceedings, but that is unclear whether it's going to happen. Protesters say they're going to continue taking to the streets until he either steps down or is removed from office.

KING: Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team. Thanks, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.