November 2, 1998

Cuban Police Crack Down on Crime


By Anita Snow
.c The Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) -- Cuba's National Revolutionary Police banged on the apartment door at 4 a.m. They roused a pair of prostitutes and their foreign clients out of their rented rooms and hauled them down to the station.

Then, in an unusual move in a country that has recently tolerated prostitution, three neighbors who were renting rooms to hookers were accused of pandering. A dozen people, including the men who brought the couples to the informal bordello, were charged.

``I didn't ask them what they were going to do. I just rented the rooms,'' said one of those charged, Maria Garcia, 71, a former rebel who spent nine months in the Sierra Maestra mountains during the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959.

Free on $2,000 bail until she goes to trial, Garcia could face up to eight years in prison.

Cuban police in recent weeks have cracked down on crime in Havana, which had seen growing hordes of prostitutes and a surge in violent acts such as robbery and murder.

The streetwalkers who once swarmed around tourist locales and the shadowy men offering cheap cigars and independent taxis have all but disappeared from the streets.

Dozens of new white Peugot police cars patrol nightly, stopping suspicious vehicles and ordering any prostitutes still bold enough to go outside to return home.

Prostitution is not a crime in Cuba. But a stern order by a Cuban police officer is usually enough to get anyone off the street. Cuban authorities occasionally round up prostitutes and put them on buses back to their provincial hometowns.

Pimping and pandering -- making money off a prostitute -- is seen as a far more serious offense and can mean several years in prison for repeat offenders.

``They're going to do us in,'' said Esteban Lazo, regional leader of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Communist officials see the crackdown as more than a battle against crime. For them, it is a war on a ``lack of discipline'' threatening to rip the seams of the island's socialist system.

Juventud Rebelde, the weekly newspaper of the Union of Young Communists, recently described criminals as ``enemies of the Revolution.''

Leaders of Havana's ideological neighborhood watch groups, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, have met with police leaders to discuss ways to work together to fight crime.

``There are tendencies and types of crimes never seen before,'' Gen. Jesus Becerra, head of the National Revolutionary Police, told a gathering of municipal leaders. ``It is becoming more complex.''

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alejandro Gonzalez, blamed the growing crime problem on drugs brought into the country by traffickers trying to use the island as a stepping stone for smuggling between Colombia and the United States.

Still, drug use in Cuba appears to be limited mostly to marijuana brought in by tourists. A proliferation of prostitutes and marijuana use in Havana's discotheques prompted police to shut most of them several weeks ago. The majority remain closed.

While the crime rate remains extremely low compared with other major cities around the world, the sporadic robberies and murders in Havana have shocked a city where the most common crime a few years ago was pilfering from government offices and factories.

The government does not release crime statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests violent acts are on the rise.

The strangulation of a Cuban woman in her home during an apparent robbery on Oct. 9 in particular terrified Havana residents who for decades never dreamed of being attacked by a fellow citizen.

Police arrested several suspects in the slaying of Esther Nieto Selles, 35. They did not announce a motive, but said cash, jewelry, household appliances and clothes were taken from her home.

In September, the Italian Embassy confirmed a pair of Italian men had been shot to death and their bodies abandoned on a beach in Guanabo. Cuba's government has never commented on the double homicide and the motive has never been made public.

Castro blames growing crime on the influence of capitalism.

``The war against crime is also a war against the imperialist enemy,'' he told leaders of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution during a national congress in September. He said his government was well prepared to fight crime with ``the force of the people.''

The rise in crime followed the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the decade. Cuba was plunged into a severe economic crisis, and most citizens suffered for several years as they tried to scrounge enough food to survive.

Soon, young women hard pressed to feed their families became prostitutes, or ``jinoteras,'' catering to foreign tourists. As tourism boomed, hundreds of other women took to the streets.

Prostitution has gotten out of control, said Lazo, the local Communist Party leader.

``They are going to do in the revolution,'' he said.

AP-NY-11-01-98 1229EST

Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.


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