The Desperate Fight to Keep their Homes

06/07/2010 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Consider the case of Hipotolito Soto. When I met him, he was bouncing a baby on his lap and fighting back tears. Five days a week he works in steelyard to support an extended family of five: his brother, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's daughter and his girlfriend's daughter's infant son. Each night he comes home to a house he built six years ago. Each day he worries that the Government will destroy his home and leave his family with nowhere to live.

Hipotolito Soto and his family live with 200 others in Villas del Sol, a squatter community in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican government has been trying to evict the residents, some speculate in order to give the land to a private developer to build a shopping mall. Three years ago, the government sent bulldozers unannounced to raze homes in the community. They succeeded in tearing down ten homes.

Things got worse in August of last year when a police task force showed up unexpectedly, early in the morning, and barricaded the road out of the Villas del Sol. People who tried to leave for work or to get breakfast down the road found they could not get out. Residents were clueless and so furious as to why they were being trapped and the police responded with pepper spray, tear-gas, and Tasers.

That was the beginning of the police harassment. It was also the beginning of suspicions that the Government is targeting Villas del Sol because it is a squatter community of Dominicans, as opposed to the squatter community across the street, which is predominately Puerto Rican. Police have taunted residents for being Dominican and orally threatened them with deportation even though many residents are legal Puerto Rican citizens.

The police established a 24-hour surveillance trailer to monitor the entrance into Villas del Sol. They also turned off the water and electricity access for the community.

The lack of water led to an outbreak of dengue and the government turned on the water last December after two infants were hospitalized, one of whom had swine flu and the other of whom was the baby on Hipotolito's knee.

The baby, who is under two year old, has been hospitalized twice: for three days in December with pneumonia and for six days in February with bronchitis. Even though the child is now home, he is constantly sick and Hipotolito tears up when he explains what could happen if the baby were to catch the dengue.

The Government turned off the water again this January and now delivers bottled water to the community. It is the rare family that finds their allotment sufficient. Families carry the bottles home and store the water in tall rubber bins. They cover the water with lids to keep out the mosquitoes and other insects, sometimes successfully. With this water they wash dishes, clothes, and flush toilet. This water is not safe enough to drink, so people buy their own, carrying the bottles home from down the road.

This is only one of the ways the community of Villas del Sol has seen their quality of life plummet. Since the Government turned off the electricity, residents rarely go out at night since it is too dark outside. Some families have installed their own generators, whose carbon monoxide fumes lead to bad nausea and vomiting. But most families do not have generators. Their televisions now remain off and the fridge unusable. Children now do homework by candlelight or at the nearby church. Families buy perishable goods daily, throwing away their what they do not use since it will spoil.

All of these problems pale next to the fear for these families that they might lose their home. Kids ask their parents what will happen if the bulldozers come back--a real fear that leads parents to spend the day at home, guarding their dwelling. The kids from the community often play together on the dirt streets and they have created their own version of hide-and-seek: one child shouts out "the diggers are coming" and all the kids duck for cover.

Most of the families in Villas del Sol have been there for years. Some work and pay taxes. Others are unemployed. Nearly all of them struggle with depression as they explain how dramatically their quality of life has plummeted and how they live in constant fear that they will lose their homes. They do not know what to tell their children about what will happen if they are forced to leave Villas del Sol.

The ACLU of Puerto Rico has taken these human rights abuses to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where the matter is currently pending. (I assisted on the preparation for the filing.) After the filing of the case, the Government reestablished water service in Villas del sol but has told residents they must leave by June 30th. A Puerto Rican court authorized the eviction, although the order to vacate is still pending. No alternate housing or land has been offered to these families and on June 30th it is possible that the police will force people like Hipotolito Soto out of their homes despite their having no where else to live.