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In Puerto Rico, the arrests of elected officials worsen trust in government


The FBI and the Justice Department have been on a tear arresting elected officials in Puerto Rico. In the last six months, they've charged 6 of the island's 78 mayors for public corruption, and more are believed to be under investigation. It's a ballooning scandal that our next guest says is endangering the public trust in a government that's been steadily losing the confidence of many of its citizens. Benjamin Torres Gotay is a reporter and columnist for Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia. He joins me now. Benjamin, (speaking Spanish).

BENJAMIN TORRES GOTAY: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Six mayors arrested by the FBI in just six months. What are they accused of.

GOTAY: (Through interpreter) They're accused of basically the same thing, which is asking for money in exchange for government contracts. And all of these cases involve the same two trash and asphalt companies.

FLORIDO: And I understand that the Department of Justice has released some pretty damning evidence - photo, video evidence of some of this alleged bribery going on.

GOTAY: (Through interpreter) In the case of the mayor of Guaynabo, one of Puerto Rico's most important cities, they released a photo in which you can see the mayor accepting an envelope allegedly filled with money from a contractor paying him a bribe.

FLORIDO: How shocking have these arrests been for people in Puerto Rico?

GOTAY: (Through interpreter) I can't say people are shocked, but people are tired. They're exhausted by the frequency and intensity of these cases. And we've seen this reflected in recent elections. People started voting against the two main parties that have always controlled the government here. And in my opinion, this is because of corruption and the collapse of government institutions that we've seen over the last 15 to 20 years.

FLORIDO: It's worth noting that studies have found that Puerto Rico is not more prone to corruption than other places in the United States. But you write that this is turning into one of the largest corruption scandals in Puerto Rico's history, that Puerto Ricans are increasingly coming to feel that they are surrounded by thieves.

GOTAY: (Through interpreter) Well, that's because that's what you feel, see and hear people talk about on the streets. There are so many politicians accused and rumors that more arrests are coming. In my opinion, this all creates the sensation that the government is no more than a pinata that corrupt interests can come and pillage.

FLORIDO: This scandal is creeping close to the island's governor, Pedro Pierluisi. A friend of his pled guilty to hiding the origin of half a million dollars that he raised to help Pierluisi win the governorship last year. Is the governor in danger here?

GOTAY: (Through interpreter) It's hard for me to answer that question. Legal trouble I don't know, but political trouble - it's evident that he is.

FLORIDO: So clearly a brewing crisis of credibility here. Is there anything the governor can do to help rebuild public trust in this moment?

GOTAY: (Through interpreter) It's a good question, Adrian, but it doesn't have an easy answer. This crisis of trust in public institutions has been brewing for years. I think there are ways to reestablish public trust, but it would have to be through radical reforms. And with the politicians we have in power, I just don't see that happening.

FLORIDO: Benjamin Torres Gotay is a reporter and columnist for Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia. Benjamin, gracias.

GOTAY: (Speaking Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Roberta Rampton is NPR's White House editor. She joined the Washington Desk in October 2019 after spending more than six years as a White House correspondent for Reuters. Rampton traveled around America and to more than 20 countries covering President Trump, President Obama and their vice presidents, reporting on a broad range of political, economic and foreign policy topics. Earlier in her career, Rampton covered energy and agriculture policy.