Puerto Rican boxing legend Hector “Macho” Camacho died on Saturday after his family decided to take him off life support. Camacho — the onetime world lightweight champion who knocked out icons like Sugar Ray Leonard but whose life outside the ring could be as sordid as his career inside it was glorious — had been brain-dead since last Tuesday night, Nov. 20, when he was shot in the head outside a bar in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. It was the most high-profile reminder yet that Puerto Rico has a violent-crime plague on its hands: its murder rate today is 23 per 100,000 people, about five times that of the U.S., the worst homicide tally the island has ever suffered.
Not surprisingly, Puerto Rico is dealing with a raft of other social crises, from a 45% poverty rate to 15% unemployment to a median annual income of less than $15,000, well below the U.S. poverty line. Little wonder that more Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. citizens) now live in the U.S. than in Puerto Rico, or that Puerto Rican voters ousted Governor Luis Fortuño on Nov. 6 and narrowly elected a new one, Alejandro García Padilla. But more important, they also announced, in a nonbinding referendum, that they no longer want Puerto Rico to be a U.S. commonwealth, the territorial status that the island — which the U.S. wrested from Spain in 1898 — has held since 1952. On the question of what to be instead, by a 65%-to-35% margin, voters signaled their preference to become the 51st state in the union.
Puerto Rico’s statehood bid has to be approved by the U.S. Congress, and there are a host of reasons why it should be granted. The brutal demise of Camacho reflects perhaps the most urgent: making Puerto Rico the 51st state would not only help the island of 4 million people pull out of its violent tailspin; it could also help the U.S. create a more modern law-enforcement model inside Latin America and the Caribbean, where public insecurity is possibly an even heavier drag on development today than poverty and inequality are.
U.S. statehood is no guarantee of first-world law and order. (See last summer’s murder spree in Chicago.) And U.S. federal agencies like the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) admittedly have more presence in Puerto Rico than they do in other parts of Latin America. But Puerto Rico’s local police, according to a scathing 2011 U.S. Justice Department report, are as corrupt, incompetent and abusive as most Latin American constabularies. Statehood might offer a better chance of forging the more reliable cop culture enjoyed by the vast majority of people in the 50 U.S. states. (Expect Hollywood, in fact, to be ready with pilot scripts for Puerto Rico Five-One if statehood goes through; San Juan’s got gorgeous location potential, and it’s cheaper to film there than in Honolulu.)
Why would statehood make much difference? Because Washington would make sure it does, especially given the more potent representation and integration Puerto Rico would gain there. To Washington, it’s one thing for some faraway U.S. territory, which many U.S. Congressmen couldn’t find on a map if their lives depended on it, to log the kind of carnage you read about in Juárez, Mexico. It’s another thing if it’s one of the stars above the stripes that’s pushing up the U.S.’s down-trending national crime stats. Juárez, where law enforcement is a travesty, has the highest murder rate of any city in the world; but El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande, has one of the lowest. It’s a good bet that although Puerto Rico sits in the same Caribbean basin as countries like Honduras, which has the world’s worst national murder rate, statehood would give Washington more impetus to help turn San Juan into a Caribbean El Paso.
That in turn could have an impact on the rest of the Caribbean, if not the rest of Latin America. Granted, having first-world law enforcement on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border hasn’t done a lot to improve things on the other side, in Chihuahua or Baja California. But Puerto Rico is part of Latin America’s bone marrow; if a more modern and professional police presence were more robustly promoted there, it could spread like healthy red-blood cells to neighbors like the Dominican Republic and Haiti, maybe beyond them. The bottom line is that it can’t hurt, especially since the Caribbean is a perennial transit lounge for South American drug shipments. Having more U.S.-caliber law enforcement in the thick of it would be a benefit. (It would likewise benefit Latin America if people in the U.S. reduced their reckless demand for illegal drugs.)
Another bottom line is that commonwealth status — a “political and economic twilight zone,” as Angelo Falcón, head of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York City, put it to me when President Obama visited the island last year — doesn’t work for Puerto Rico in the 21st century. And its worsening troubles are becoming a bigger source of shame for the U.S. The murder of Camacho, 50, gunned down with a friend, who was also was killed, while sitting in a car where cops found nine packets of cocaine, is just the latest shocker. So far no arrests have been made, and don’t hold your breath waiting for any. Statehood won’t change that overnight. But keeping Puerto Rico a faraway territory most likely won’t change anything.