Water is life. In essence, that is the claim of members of the Villas del Sol community who filed a request for precautionary measures (RPM) to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The request seeks the IACHR's immediate assistance in forcing the Puerto Rican government to reestablish running water and electricity—services which have been cut off from this community completely with the exception of one month—since August 2009. The RPM was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Puerto Rico and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University Washington College of Law.
Villas del Sol, a poor community of approximately 200 families located in the Puerto Rican municipality of Toa Baja, was founded in 1998 by families who were unable to evacuate the area following Hurricane George, and had no viable housing options. The community is mainly comprised of Dominican immigrants, but many of its members are U.S. citizens as well. With the knowledge of municipal authorities, the families spent thousands of their own dollars cleaning up the devastation and building houses on the land they currently occupy. The community was provided with water and electricity services, and existed without issue for nearly a decade. Now the community faces a judicial eviction proceeding and relocation plan to another plot of land.
Since 2007, the community has also been the target of violence and human rights abuses at the hands of the government of Puerto Rico. On different occasions, police officers have raided the community and subjected its members to police abuse, even against children and a pregnant woman. Government officials have attempted to destroy their houses, and since August 2009 (except for one month), the government of Puerto Rico intentionally deprived the community of access to the essential services of water and electricity.
Maritza de la Cruz, a 35-year-old resident of Villas del Sol, told the Associated Press: "The government is showing xenophobia and discrimination[…]If we don't have water, we don't have life[…] Everything is more difficult - the toilet, washing clothes, cleaning ourselves."
As a consequence, the already harsh living conditions in the community have become intolerable and inhumane. With the denial of the essential services, the community is in imminent danger of exposure to life-threatening diseases like dengue fever, and gastrointestinal and respiratory illness. In fact, many of the residents already suffer or have suffered serious health conditions directly related to the lack of water services and electricity. De la Cruz's infant infant daughter contracted the H1N1 virus in December, and residents have also contracted dengue fever, though thankfully, no one has died as a result of these illnesses, as of yet.
The government has set the deadline of May 14 to relocate the near 200 families to another plot of land. If they do not voluntarily relocate, community members fear forced removal and possible police violence, similar to the violations they have endured in the past, as there remain no serious housing alternatives available to the residents.
With the request to the IACHR, the community seeks, among other things, the intervention of the IACHR in pressuring the government of Puerto Rico to reestablish access to water and electricity and to prevent the use of police violence and brutality while the relocation process continues.
It appears that our efforts are beginning to pay off. We have recently been informed by members of the community that just a few hours after our team filed the request with the IACHR yesterday, water service was partially reestablished in the community. While some of the residents are still without water, there is currently a brigade from the Puerto Rico Water and Sewer Authority working to reestablish access, and full restoration of water service is expected to take place at some point today.
Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the ACLU's Human Rights Program, said in a statement after the petition was filed:
Without immediate intervention, the residents of Villas del Sol face the serious threat of continued police brutality, life-threatening illness due to lack of water and even the loss of the homes they built and have lived in for over 10 years. This sort of egregious abuse undermines basic values of fairness and due process and is a violation of U.S. human rights commitments.
Community members are not totally "out of the woods," however restoration of water service is a helpful step, and we will remain vigilant that the community's human rights remain protected, both where they are living now and in any other area where they may be relocated to in the future.