By Bianca Padró Ocasio, Miami Herald
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — One of the largest protests in Puerto Rico’s history erupted into violent clashes late Wednesday night between demonstrators who said they will keep coming back to demand the governor’s resignation and officers in riot gear who shot tear gas and rubber bullets into the packed crowds.
Long after tens of thousands had peacefully marched through Old San Juan, hundreds of protesters gathered and blocked the narrow streets surrounding Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s Fortaleza mansion, clamoring for him to resign.
Some protesters threw firecrackers, bottles of water, beer and glowsticks at the officers barricaded around the governor’s home. Portions of the crowd called for others to stop inciting violence, leading chants like “No tiren” — stop throwing — as tensions boiled over between rioters and police.
Shortly before midnight, the officers issued a warning to the crowd to disperse. Minutes later, police shot rubber bullets at the crowd, injuring protesters and journalists. The tear gas drove panicked demonstrators away from the barricades and against a nearby chapel. Some climbed the fence or pried open the gates of the iconic Parque de las Palomas.
“The (protesters) would stop the throwing of objects and then start up again, and this happened repeatedly,” police commissioner Henry Escalera said. He told the local Telemundo station that his officers had been attacked with screwdrivers and bottles with a “liquid that caused a reaction.”
Wednesday night’s events marked the second time since Monday that Puerto Rico’s police teargassed a crowd of protesters who refused to disperse.
Graffiti that had been painted over since Monday reappeared. Cars, shops and street signs were vandalized. One San Juan resident was filmed by a local station denouncing the police’s use of tear gas because it filtered inside the homes surrounding the Fortaleza.
The anger at the government began last week after six former island government officials were indicted in federal court on charges of corruption, and a profane private group chat that Rossello held with cabinet members and aides became public. On Saturday, when all 889 pages of the Telegram group chat were published, Puerto Ricans became enraged at the governor and his close allies, who had mocked political opponents, gay people, women and ordinary citizens.
Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, the lively protests presented a scene drastically distant from the chaos of Wednesday night.
To the accompaniment of percussion and air horns, a dense stream made up of thousands of chanting, singing Puerto Ricans began moving at a crawl through the streets of Old San Juan to demand that Rossello step down.
Protesters convened by Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and other well-known artists began gathering en masse under a scorching sun late in the afternoon in front of the oceanfront Capitol building, the seat of the island’s legislature, for the 5 p.m. protest.
As the sun went down, people continued peacefully streaming down the roadway leading into Old San Juan towards a broad plaza for a planned mass rally. Riding on an improvised stage atop a truck were Bad Bunny and Rene Perez Joglar, the rapper from the group Calle 13 who is known as Residente, who urged over a loudspeaker that Rossello “go to hell.” Other Puerto Rican celebrities joining the protest were singer Ricky Martin and actor Benicio del Toro.
Other protesters began showing up near the entrance to the governor’s mansion, the site of a confrontation between riot police and some protesters on Monday night. The dead-end street leading to the mansion’s gate was blocked by concrete highway barriers and a phalanx of police.
The mass of people soon filled the narrow streets of the historic Spanish Colonial district.
Many were young. Some had attended protests in the past several days. Many others had never been to a protest before. Some had traveled from their homes around the island or from abroad to be here.
But what appeared consistent and true was that Puerto Ricans of all walks of life were fed up, offended and angry at the 40-year-old governor and his administration, caught up in a string of scandals and investigations amid an extended financial crisis that has led to an exodus from the island.
“We had to be here. There’s nothing else to do,” said 48-year-old Aidelyn Paba, who said she lived in Fort Lauderdale and traveled for the demonstration. “Ricky doesn’t represent us anymore … The graduating class from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez in 2015, that class, 90% of it has had to leave. They’ve stolen everything from us.”
Around the early protesters, tourists strolled with shopping bags from Coach and shyly asked what was going on. Others took selfies in front of the officers or made their kids pose with signs calling for Rossello to resign. One woman hosed down her door front and hid loose rocks she feared could be used as projectiles.
“Please try not to abuse the young people,” Jeanette Saldana told the group of police officers in front of the governor’s mansion, the Fortaleza. She’s a 52-year-old resident of Aguas Buenas, a town about 40 minutes south of San Juan, but said she could not stay for the afternoon protest due to health concerns. “The youth are doing the work of those who cannot be here, like older people, like people who cannot walk all the way here. So I’m asking for peace from you.”
“I am against the governor and I am asking for his resignation,” Saldana added. “The statements he made against our people who don’t deserve it, to our society, to women, to homosexuals, to obese people, to the people who are still living under blue tarps … I am making this demand and I am doing it respectfully.”
Hurricane shutters and plywood lined the storefront windows of a mostly empty Old San Juan, as residents and authorities in Puerto Rico prepared for the massive protests.
By 4 p.m., several hundred people had already gathered in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol building. They repeated chants as the rhythm of bomba and plena blasted over trucks and speakers, asking for the governor to leave.
Rita Pabon, 44, said she was tired of officials dismissing the protests as a movement led by a small few.
“I had never been to a protest. This is the first time I do it because I feel like Puerto Rico needs it,” said Pabon, a resident of San Juan. “I want the governor to resign. It’s not just the chat, it’s all the ongoing corruption and it all fell on him. It fell on him to leave.”
She was joined by her 18-year-old daughter, Natasha Curtin, who said it was also the first time she had ever been to a protest.
“We’ve had too many humiliations. It’s everything, everything. We saw how they did that in the chat, and it was just the last straw,” Curtin said. “He can say he’s sorry, but we’re not asking him to apologize. We’re asking for him to leave.”
The protests have spread across Puerto Rican communities in the U.S., including in Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and California. Puerto Ricans abroad posted on social media in support of Wednesday’s demonstrations from Spain, Italy and the Dominican Republic.