Rights Groups Ask Inter-American Commission To Intervene In Puerto Rican Human Rights Disaster

April 28, 2010

Hundreds Of Residents Of Villas Del Sol Face Police Brutality, Lack Of Water And Forced Evictions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Puerto Rico and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University Washington College of Law (IHRLC) today filed a request asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to intervene in the case of the Puerto Rican community of Villas del Sol, where over 200 families have been subjected to continuous human rights violations by the Puerto Rican government and local law enforcement. Members of the community, made up of both Dominican immigrants and American citizens including over 300 children, have been subjected to police brutality, denied access to basic water and electrical services and now face forced eviction from the land where they have lived for more than a decade.

"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," said Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. "This sort of egregious abuse undermines basic values of fairness and due process and is a violation of U.S. human rights commitments."

Villas del Sol, a community located in the Puerto Rican municipality of Toa Baja, was founded in 1998 by several families who were unable to evacuate the area following Hurricane George. With the knowledge of municipal authorities, the remaining families spent thousands of their own dollars cleaning up the devastation and building houses on the land. The community was provided with municipal water and electricity services and existed without issue for nearly a decade.

According to the request to the IACHR, in 2007 Puerto Rican authorities began subjecting the residents of Villas del Sol to harassment, claiming the area was a flood zone and they could not live there anymore. That year, without warning, representatives of the Puerto Rican housing authority arrived at Villas del Sol with bulldozers and proceeded to destroy 30 homes. In 2009, dozens of police officers descended on Villas del Sol with semi-automatic weapons, dogs, horses and a helicopter and proceeded to erect a barrier at the edge of the community, blocking all entry and exit from the area. Residents who attempted to peacefully resist the barricade, as well as some who did not attempt to resist at all, were met with pepper spray, tasers and other police brutality – including the beatings of a pregnant woman and her six-year-old child. Puerto Rican authorities then put Villas del Sol under 24-hour police surveillance and shut off water and electrical services to the community, a health hazard which has contributed to an infant contracting H1N1 and increased incidences of Dengue fever and other disease and infection.

"The residents of Villas del Sol now face eviction because of the current government's backlash against squatter communities – which have developed around the island as a direct result of the government's own failure to make available affordable rental properties for the poor," said William Ramirez, Executive Director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico. "The government's inhumane tactics and human and civil rights violations have caused pain and suffering to the people of Villas del Sol. Unfortunately, authorities and courts have thus far refused to provide any remedy."

According to today's request to the IACHR, the actions by Puerto Rican authorities toward the residents of Villas del Sol, many of whom are of Afro-Dominican descent, are motivated by racial and anti-immigrant bias, among other factors. The request also asserts the actions are violations of the United States' obligation under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, adopted by the Conference of American States in 1948. The request asks the IACHR to take measures to protect the residents of Villas del Sol from further harm, and specifically to call on the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments to take immediate measures to reinstate water and electric services, protect the community from police violence and halt forced evictions until all residents of Villas del Sol are safely relocated to adequate housing, pending final execution of any agreements reached by all parties involved.

"We call on the United States government to take responsibility for the deplorable human rights violations occurring in Puerto Rico," said Andrea Pestone, a student attorney with the IHRLC. "The federal government should work with the Puerto Rican government to ensure that residents once again have access to water and electricity and are treated with dignity and as the decent human beings they are."

The request to the IACHR is online at: www.aclu.org/human-rights/request-precautionary-measures-iahrc-regarding-villas-del-sol

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