February 10, 2008

Safety in Puerto Rico, Part 1: General Safety

Puerto Rico is SAFE.

There is a misconception that Puerto Rico is an unsafe place to be. Somewhere between the reports of some-high-number of murders and crime rates in New York it arose, terrifying would-be Americans and other tourists from visiting.

"Isn't it dangerous?" people have asked me.

It surprises them when I tell them I often feel safer there than in many big cities here. I would dare to say I feel very, very comfortable walking around Puerto Rico, despite being an obviously American young woman. Now, granted, I haven't been alone too often while there, but even still it's not something I would mind because I always feel safe.

I think this stems from a few factors...

  1. Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean. Yes, it's true (go look at a map if you don't believe me). But this doesn't mean that their neighbors share their crime with them... duh.
  2. Puerto Rico has poor people. Also true but sort of deceiving. Compared to most of America, Puerto Rico is far behind economically. On the other hand, compared to most of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is thriving. The difference between them--and I'm going to go on a limb here, because I haven't been to other parts of the Caribbean, so feel free to correct me--is that there is no huge class disparity that is seen in other countries. Most people live on about the same level, and, while they do exist, there are very few pockets of incredibly poor and incredibly rich people. Another part of it is that most people make more than enough money for necessities and then some. After all, $20,000 is considered (low) middle class while in the U.S. it would be not much more than pocket change. However, the prices of living are increasing much faster than the wages (for example, water has gone up quite a few times by as much as 400% and real estate is getting ridiculously high), so eventually there may be some problems.
  3. Puerto Rico has black people. Shocker there! Now, I know there are racists both on and off the island who would like to blame crime on them. It shouldn't be really too surprising that I'm going to say it's nonsense, especially for Puerto Rico where blacks, while certainly marginalized, receive more equal treatment than in the U.S. and certainly better than in their sister countries... DR, I'm talking to you. Racism in PR is complicated and I'll be touching on it later. In terms of crime though, it is definitely a non-issue.
That aside, what is the crime in Puerto Rico like? Well, there are two risk factors: where you are and what you're doing there. For the first, there are certain areas that you wouldn't want to go. The most famous, and important, is La Perla, pictured in the picture above. It's right between el Morro and el Castillo de San Cristobal and tourists have been known to mistakenly enter a few times. There are a few other places as well that could be avoided to prevent issues, like parts of Loiza (a bit east of San Juan) and supposedly parts of Ponce. Generally, the worse the houses are, the better it is you stay away... unless they're houses in the mountains, which are generally pretty safe.

The other question is what exactly are you doing? About 90% (I believe... I read it somewhere a while ago) of homocides are drug-related. If you're not messing with drugs and gangs you shouldn't have any problem at all.

For tourists, pickpocketing isn't as common as, say, Europe, but it is something to prepare for as would be done in any American city or even less, since most tourists only stop at Old San Juan, which is incredibly safe. Point is, there is no reason to be scared of the Island of Enchantment.

(Sorry for such a long hiatus between posts! They will continue in due order from now on I hope)


Petra H said...

I thought that Puerto Rico was going to be much more unsafe than I found it when I arrived. The guidebooks and people scare you but in the end I don't feel more unsafe than in many other places (big cities). Of course I would never go to La Perla, I avoid the beach at night and some areas of Santurce. But it's not much different than from some areas of Brussels where I lived before (of course more people are poor here than in Europe).
I went to Trinidad 3 years ago, and heard stories of expats being robbed at gunpoint in their homes (I think some were even killed), and my friend slept with a diving knife under his pillow in his gated community... so yes, I agree that Puerto Rico probably is safer than most other Caribbean islands.

Anonymous said...

Hi Petra,

You make some diligent points. Most of the crime in Puerto Rico is either gang or drug-related. I was born in Mayaguez, PR, moved to the US when I was 9 years old but have traveled back often, if not once a year. I have never been around a gun fight or been robbed. I have also been to many other areas on the West side of the island (Boqueron, Cabo Rojo, etc.) and have never felt safer, even though I'm seen as more American than Puerto Rican when visiting.

By the way, it looks like you wrote this on February 13, which is my b-day. Funny...

Anonymous said...

Did you forget your Spanish? My dad is black from Mississippi, and my mom is from Bayamon Puerto Rico, I was born and raise in the states , trying to maintain the language is not easy, I have some family members the sister, will speak Spanish, and maybe the brothers, will not, or when I have kids the Spanish will be lost if I don't work to maintain it, and the main reason I kept my Spanish is because of my grandparents in the states who can't speak English, but when we h older generation dies off so does the language it seems, and you have cousin on a the island who never been to the states ,can't speak English, and family that never been to Puerto Rico, and can't speak Spanish