Puerto Rico is criminalizing student protest

November 8, 2018

Student activists have been subject to repression since the 2017 student strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). Gabriel Casal Nazario, an activist with the communications collective Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil and a student at UPR’s Rio Piedras campus, where he was involved in the strike, reports on the ongoing injustice, in an article (“Asedio judicial a estudiantes huelguistas”) originally published in Spanish and translated by Monique Dols.

ON OCTOBER 15, Adriana Quiles and Josué Román, two student strike leaders from the University of Puerto Rico student strike of 2017, had a hearing in which they faced serious criminal charges for their participation in a protest against the destruction of public education in Puerto Rico.

They had hoped this would be the end of their year-and-a-half-long nightmare, during which they were targeted for arrest, assaulted by police and subjected to arduous court proceedings.

Unfortunately, their nightmare isn’t over yet. After taking off time from school and work, arriving on time and waiting in an empty courtroom for more than an hour to be heard, the students and their families were told — as they have been dozens of times before — that their hearing was postponed, in this case due to the prosecutor’s illness.

This is yet another in a long series of delays by the Puerto Rican judicial system that has forced the students into a long and costly court battle.

Police deployed at a student demonstration in Puerto Rico
Police deployed at a student demonstration in Puerto Rico (Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil | Facebook)

The fact that Adriana and Josué are being denied a speedy trial for their role in student protest should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the ways that student strikers have been treated by the Puerto Rican judicial system.

The two students were targeted for arrest in April 2017 for their participation in a protest that targeted the financial and governmental institutions responsible for the gutting of the public university system. Both protesters were arrested by plainclothes policemen in a militaristic fashion.

Adriana was assaulted by several undercover agents who threw her and pinned her to the ground, forced her into an unmarked car and disappeared her for nearly 13 hours before releasing her.

Almost a year and a half later, the two have had to attend 33 preliminary hearings, where they have had to relieve their assaults over and over.

BEHIND THESE attacks on Adriana and Josué is a government that was shaken by a massive and popular student strike that shook Puerto Rico in the spring of 2017.

For almost two months between March and June, students on the various campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) maintained a national strike in defense of public education and against $512 million in budget cuts.

These measures have been demanded by the Fiscal Control Board, more aptly known as the junta in Puerto Rico, the unelected committee imposed by the U.S. Senate to use brutal austerity to pay Puerto Rico’s Wall street debtors.

Our strike started at the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. By April 5, the third week of the struggle, we had formulated and put forward our clear and straightforward demands against budget cuts and tuition hikes in the University of Puerto Rico system, for comprehensive democratic university reform, for an immediate auditing of Puerto Rico’s debt and for the ceasing of payment of any and all illegitimate debt.

We stood up and in our collective voice exposed that the crisis was not inevitable. We drew attention to the individuals and institutions responsible for manufacturing the fiscal crisis in the University of Puerto Rico. We called out the junta, which imposed the budget cuts in the first place.

But we also called out every single politician from both major parties who accepted the terms of and helped to carry out these disastrous cuts. This includes politicians from both the Democratic Party-aligned Popular Democratic Party (PPD, by its Spanish initials) and the Republican Party-aligned New Progressive Party (PNP).

From the beginning of the strike, the shared strategy among the unelected federal junta, the colonial dictatorship of the United States and the university administration was to try to crush the protests with repression. Starting that February, Gov. Ricardo Roselló even went out of his way to change the penal code in Puerto Rico to make it possible to punish protesters with harsher and more draconian measures.

THE ARRESTS began on April 17 at the Capitol building. One student, Francisco Santiago, was arrested while trying to get into a session of the Senate that was debating a bill about whether the Puerto Rican debt should be audited in order to review its legality.

Like Adriana and Josué, Fransisco is also facing criminal charges — in his case for having the audacity to enter a closed Senate session that would fundamentally impact the future of millions of people.

Just blocks away, Josué was arrested by undercover agents who took him into custody separately. While the country was abuzz with a heated debate about how to handle the question of the unpayable debt, striking students were getting arrested for protesting the debt and its impact on their education.

Two days later on April 19, Roselló repealed the commission which had been previously charged with auditing the debt. Outraged and disgusted, we decided to escalate our tactics and lock down several buildings in the Golden Mile (the main drag through San Juan’s main financial district) that played a central role in debt profiteering.

We protested at the building of the Fiscal Control Board, the McConnell Valdés law firm, which testified as a legal expert about $32 million of the public debt, and the Oriental Bank, which profited to the tune of $37 million in commissions from the illegal debt.

That afternoon, Puerto Rico Police Superintendent Michelle Fraley announced that investigations would be opened against the student strikers protesting on the Golden Mile, and that video evidence collected by agents in the protest would be used to build the case against the students.

April 23 was a Family Day at the University of Puerto Rico, a day which by tradition was a day for students to enjoy downtime with friends and family. The celebration was in the plaza in front of the Capitol building, with live music, a bombazo or Bomba drum and dance circle, theater, jugglers, poetry, art and various workshops.

As Adriana was finishing up and heading home, she was attacked by plainclothes cops while she and some compañeras were walking back to her car. Adriana was grabbed by her shirt, thrown to the ground and held down by two undercover cops.

The police called for reinforcements while her friends recorded the incident and screamed for help. A Toyota Corolla with tinted windows and ordinary plates showed up, and the undercover cops threw her in and terrorized her for the whole trip to the precinct. She was held for 13 hours in a cell before they let her go.

The repressive apparatus made this and the other two arrests for two reasons: to discourage other students from joining the movement and to discredit the student strikers in the public eye by painting us as criminals rather than students with the right to protest and shape the national debate around the debt and education.

The day after these arrests, Fraley came back to the press to continue to justify the disappearances of the students by undercover agents. The press worked overtime to demonize Josué and Adriana as not simply students making demands of their government, but instead dangerous criminals trying to destabilize the country and damage private property.

BY TARGETING student protesters through the courts, the government aims to solve a political conflict in its favor by tying up students and their families with a legal process.

Since the cases are under judicial review, they do not have the same processes as other kinds of cases. Under judicial review, the processes of investigation, identification of defendants, gathering of evidence, preliminary hearings and the trial process are distorted by the outsized power in the hands of the judge.

After hearing the sworn statements of undercover agents, the prosecutor Jorge Elí Carrión Ramos brought two serious charges against Adriana, one for aggravated damage against public property and the other for intimidation or violence against the public authority. Josue was charged with a grave charge of aggravated damage against public property and a less serious charge.

The day after the demonstration, the courts carried out the Rule 6 procedure in which it’s determined whether the charges will stand. Judge José L. Parés Quiñones determined that there was no cause for the serious charges against Joshua and Adriana.

Predictably, the prosecutor appealed that decision in order to bring the case to another judge, Eloína Torres Cancel, who, in earlier strikes in 2010 and 2011, was notorious for finding student strikers guilty on trumped-up charges. This same judge is also in charge of another important trial of the case of seven students charged with interrupting a meeting of the governing board of the university during the 2017 strike.

Unsurprisingly, Judge Torres Cancel found cause for the serious charges, overturning the just decision of the previous judge.

Between the state police and federal agencies, 32 students were arrested during the course of the strike. Of those 32 students, the government continues to harass 10 with criminal cases.

In the process, the repressive apparatus has removed 10 leaders who can no longer participate in demonstrations. Ten families now live in uncertainly, and a message has been sent to all students that it is dangerous to fight for public higher education.

The criminalization of student protest is being used to harass and intimidate those of us who fight for justice in Puerto Rico. They want to tire us out and beat us down, but we can’t let them get away with it.

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