Thousands of protesters in Puerto Rico have clashed with riot police, as volleys of teargas and rubber bullets were used to disperse a mostly peaceful protest that descended into chaos just yards from the governor’s residence in San Juan.
The capital has seen days of sustained protest following a leak of hundreds of pages of text messages, many including homophobic and misogynistic slurs, between the Puerto Rico governor, Ricardo Rosselló, and 11 members of his inner circle. A number of people in Rosselló’s administration have quit after the leak, but the governor has refused to tender his resignation despite continuing violence on the streets.
On Thursday morning one of the largest protest collectives on the island issued an ultimatum for Rosselló’s resignation by midnight on Sunday.
But the governor remained defiant, condemning violence by protester but making clear he would hold on to power.
“I recognize the challenge before me from recent controversies, but I firmly believe that it is possible to restore confidence and that we, after this painful process, can achieve reconciliation,” Rosselló said in a statement on Thursday.
On Wednesday Puerto Rico’s justice department issued summonses for all those involved in the private group chat and confirmed their cellphones will be inspected. Rosselló has maintained there was no illegal activity in the messages.
Wednesday’s protest began peacefully with a huge rally outside the Capitol building that tens of thousands attended. Some of the island’s most famous artists addressed the crowd from a makeshift stage on top of a white pickup truck.
The singer Ricky Martin, the subject of homophobic abuse in some of the leaked messages, made a short speech, telling reporters: “We are tired of the cynicism. They put down women, they put down the LGBT community, people with disability. Corruption, it is insane. We are tired. We can’t take it any more.”
The reggaeton star Bad Bunny stood on top of a speaker system waving the Puerto Rican flag and holding a sign that said “Ricky [Rosselló] resign” in Spanish. The rally was also attended by the actor Benicio del Toro.
The afternoon’s crowd was diverse, including children and retirees, and demanded that Rosselló, who belongs to the centrist New Progressive party and is the son of the former governor Pedro Rosselló, resign before fresh elections next year.
For many, the text message leaks were just the latest scandal in an administration beleaguered by criticism since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.
Graciela Belez, a 59-year-old hospital administrator from San Juan, said: “I’m here today because we are very sad, we are very mad and we are fed up with the government here. They are stealing our money and then they are filling up their pockets.”
Like almost every Puerto Rico resident, Belez had her life turned upside down by Maria. “We were without electricity for six months. There was no food in the supermarkets. There was nothing,” she said, accusing Rosselló of failing the US territory during beleaguered recovery efforts led by the Trump administration.
“He was a puppet of the president,” she said.
Just days before the text message scandal, referred to locally as RickyLeaks, the FBI arrested a number of administration officials and contractors, including Rosselló’s former education secretary, over allegations of corruption and misappropriation of $15.5m (£12.5m) in federal funds apportioned to Puerto Rico after Maria.
The island, an unincorporated US territory, is also in the midst of a multibillion-dollar debt crisis now managed, along with much of the island’s economic affairs, by an unelected oversight board appointed in Washington.
Further austerity and privatisation measures were imposed after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
As protesters marched along the cobbled streets of San Juan’s historic district towards the governor’s mansion, many held signs with the number 4,645, the estimated death toll in the wake of Maria, according to a Harvard University research paper.
There are still thousands of protesters out on the streets of Old San Juan, opposite the governor’s mansion. The atmosphere remains jubilant. pic.twitter.com/qDr2QP1VqM— Oliver Laughland (@oliverlaughland) July 18, 2019
Rosselló’s administration had for months sought to downplay the number of deaths tied to Maria until the number was revised last year.
As night fell on Wednesday, thousands lined the streets outside the governor’s mansion, with police dressed in riot gear initially taking a lenient approach to protesters. The crowds danced to drumbeats and chanted in Spanish: “There’s more of us and we are not afraid.”
But as the numbers continued to grow in the sweltering heat some protesters broke through the barricades, leading to initial skirmishes with officers who used riot shields to beat back the crowd.
Shortly before midnight protesters began letting off fireworks, with video suggesting some were aimed at police. Officers responded almost instantly with rounds of teargas and rubber bullets, sending thousands of protesters running back down the crammed streets.
Down on the street now, it’s still 28C and intensely humid. No sign of the crowd numbers dropping off at all.— Oliver Laughland (@oliverlaughland) July 18, 2019
Some of the walls are graffitied with the number 4,645 the estimated number of people who died as a result of hurricane Maria, according a Harvard study. pic.twitter.com/KcLuFBDZVF
Hundreds continued to clash with police throwing rocks and lighting fires in a nearby plaza as officers fired numerous rounds of teargas into the crowd. By about 2am police appeared to have regained control of the streets, but the significant escalation in violence during one of the largest protests in Puerto Rico’s history will undoubtedly place more pressure on the governor to consider resignation.
At a news conference in the early hours of Thursday morning the police commissioner, Henry Escalera, told local news that his officers had been attacked with screwdrivers, and bottles with a “liquid that caused a reaction”.
Sister demonstrations took place in cities across the US, including New York, Orlando and Miami, all with sizable Puerto Rican populations.