Puerto Ricans worried about the island’s high crime rates are posting on Facebook, tweeting, and Instagramming for change at a dizzying pace.
A Facebook group has grown by 50,000 fans in under 24 hours. Thousands have posted pictures of themselves with the now-popular phrase «Todos somos José Enrique,» which translates to «We are all José Enrique,» and many thousands more have tweeted messages of anger, sadness, and solidarity after the brutal murder of a publicist brought the Caribbean island’s crime crisis to center stage.
The wave of murders, which peaked at over 1,000 deaths in 2011 alone, is attributed to a range of problems — including the encroachment of the drug trade, police corruption, failing schools, a dismal economy, a crippling brain drain, and a high unemployment rate.
Last week, after four suspects reportedly forced Jose Enrique Gómez to withdraw 400 dollars from a parking lot ATM in Caguas, Puerto Rico, they drove half an hour southwest to Cayey, doused Gómez in gasoline, beat him, and set him on fire.
For many Puerto Ricans, the murder was a tipping point. With diverse leadership and with varied targets, the new grassroots movements all seek to fix the nation’s crime problem by way of social media.
«I knew there would be a moment when we would say ‘Stop it already. Enough is enough,'» said filmmaker Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz, who is one of the organizers of a social media-based vigil to take place around the world this coming Saturday. «And this is that moment.»
One of thousands of young people who have recently left the island, Ruiz says he was unable to practice his art and ensure his own safety in Puerto Rico and feels as though he was forced to leave. Now based in Los Angeles, Ruiz is asking all Puerto Ricans, wherever they may live in the world, to light a candle and observe a moment of silence for José Enrique Gómez and the thousands of other victims of the island’s violence. The Facebook event Un Abrazo Para Puerto Rico (which translates to, A Hug for Puerto Rico), was created Thursday morning, and has over 600 confirmed guests. Organizers urge attendees to take pictures of themselves holding vigil on Saturday December 8th, and post them on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, with the hashtag #unabrazoparapuertorico.
«We want every Puerto Rican to hug Puerto Rico before it breaks,» Ruiz said. «This first event is to unite people and to unite all the minds in order to show that all of us want change.»
Another growing movement formed out of tragedy in the past week is the Todos Somos Juan Carlos Facebook page which commemorates 19-year-old Juan Carlos Vega, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in the southwestern city of Ponce on November 30th, within 24 hours of Gómez’s death. A vigil will be held over three days this weekend in an area of Ponce that is controlled by gangs, and where Vega was reportedly shot.
«This will be a peaceful vigil. We won’t move for three days from the supposed ‘hot zone,»» reads the Facebook group. «We’re are going to show them that we are brave and we defend what is ours in a peaceful way.» This is significant because family members and organizers are insistent on directly challenging the powerful drug network in a territory that is thought to be off-limits. Ponce’s mayor said on Thursday that she fears for the safety of the constituents that will participate in the vigil.
Yet another movement growing quickly in the wake of Gómez’s murder is a push to get Puerto Rico’s highest-rated television show, Super Xclusivo, off the airways. The Facebook group, called Boicot a La Comay, was started on Tuesday evening, and has approximately 60,000 fans as of publishing. The group takes aim at the show’s creator Kobbo Santarrosa who voices the puppet co-host La Comay (slang for comadre) and co-host Hector Travieso, after La Comay hinted that Gómez’s death may have been partially his own fault because he was on Calle Padial, a street often associated with prostitution. In another segment, La Comay also reported that Gómez may have actually been soliciting sex from two young women who took part in his killing.
Critics of the show say it has long had anti-gay and racist undertones, contributing to the miseducation of the island’s populace. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois publically condemned the show, and joined the boycott on Friday afternoon. Pedro Julio Serrano, a human rights activist from Puerto Rico based in New York, says that people are sick of the show’s message.
«It’s the bullying, it’s the attacks, and the disrespect for the dignity of human beings,» said Serrano. «People have had it. Puerto Ricans are not like that. As people, we are loving and respectful and searching for solidarity. People are saying, ‘That show doesn’t represent me, that’s not what I’m about, and not what my people are about.'»
Super Xclusivo and WAPA, the channel on which the show appears, did not respond to requests for comment, but La Comay denied charges on Wednesday night’s episode, arguing that their show did not make any anti-gay insinuations in their coverage of the murder. La Comay maintained that other news outlets, namely El Nuevo Dia, had recently reported on Calle Padial as a street where prostitution is common place, and that the Super Xclusivo was simply repeating this message.
Nonetheless, the Facebook group has already successfully pressured a number of the show’s sponsors to cut funding, including Dish, Palo Viejo, Borden, Walmart, and most recently, AT&T.
«Walmart is committed to improving the quality of life of the people of Puerto Rico. Following the controversy surrounding the Super Xclusivo program we have made the decision to cancel advertising on that program,» read a note posted in Spanish on the Puerto Rico Walmart Facebook page.
But even before Gómez’s death, several grassroots campaigns against crime and violence in Puerto Rico had begun to sprout up on social media. The arts initiative Kilo365 aims to collect a pair of shoes for every person killed in 2011, paint them gold, and place them all over the island as a visual representation of the toll violence has taken.
«We’re all victims of the violence, not just the person that’s murdered,» said Kazandra Santana, one of Kilo365’s creators. «What we’re losing is our gold — our people, their souls.»
Santana, 34, has involved hundreds around the island in their education and awareness project. Some of the shoes belong to victims of the bloodshed, and other shoes have been painted by people who are responsible for the killing. The gold shoes will be part of a travelling exhibit to be displayed in various parts of Puerto Rico and New York City.
«We don’t have a company backing us or anything like that,» Santana said. «Social media is literally the only way this project has grown.»
Other groups that have found a voice on social media include Cucubano Urbano, which aims to improve safety and a sense of community in San Juan neighborhoods by holding night walks with members dressed in white and carrying light sources. And Queremos Vivir, which translates to, We Want To Live, is a 900-person group created by the high school classmates of yet another teen who was recently killed.
Even the Puerto Rican government recently turned to Twitter for a new project called Follow2Unfollow, in which the Department of Corrections arranged three prisoners to tweet about their experiences every day so that other young Puerto Ricans won’t «follow» their footsteps into a life of crime.
Ruiz truly believes that the recent excitement on social networks will translate into a real-life movement for change.
«What we’re talking about is a way of thinking and about thoughts, and the best way to communicate thoughts and ideas is through social media,» he said. «Social media helps bring injustice out to the front.»
UPDATE: AT&T reportedly pulled its advertising to the SuperXclusivo program late Friday afternoon after pressure from the Boicot La Comay movement.