The Infamous Slum of Old San Juan

They say the body acclimates to warm weather over time. A three-hour flight was not enough for this lifelong New England native to prepare for the wilting heat of Puerto Rico. Laura, on the other hand, was born and raised on the enchanted island. She handled the climate much better with her thinner Caribbean blood.

Beads of sweat rolled off my forehead as we wandered through the historic cobbled streets of Old San Juan. The occasional droplet ran down my back. Heat and humidity have a way of breaking me down ruthlessly– my biggest weakness. I toughed it out. Puerto Rico is hot, but it’s absolutely beautiful as well.

A typical colorful street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A typical street in Old San Juan lined with colonial buildings and colorful walls.

Old San Juan is the historic section of Puerto Rico’s largest city, San Juan. Fortified by Spain in the 1700’s, the city is loaded with beautiful colonial buildings and historic monuments. Steep cliffs and concrete walls were built along the shore as protection against invading forces. Every calle (“street”) has remnants of history, religion, and Caribbean traditions. Generations of families with deep African and Spanish roots still live here. Churches and cathedrals are everywhere.

There are also plenty of bars, theme restaurants, and souvenir shops on every street catering to tourists and locals alike. You can take a walking tour through a colonial-era military fort, buy a computer, and fill a prescription on the same block. The old seamlessly blends with the new.

Under every blue Spanish cobblestone hides a dirty secret.

On our first night in Old San Juan, we met two of Laura’s cousins at a popular restaurant near the harbor. They lived in the neighboring town of Carolina a few minutes up the main strip. They were polite and looked like any other fellows in their early 20’s–flat-brim baseball caps, matching Jordans, and surgically attached smartphones. We introduced ourselves, ordered a few rounds, and discussed island living over plates of roast pork, fried plantains, and white rice. An idyllic start to our Caribbean getaway.

After dinner, they drove us around San Juan to check out the sights and sounds. We passed a few clubs along the harbor that were stuffed to the gills with middle-aged tourists dancing on the open patios, sipping fruity umbrella drinks, and wearing bright summer linens. Police details were on nearly every corner. Luxury resorts were stacked along the beach in orderly rows like Monopoly pieces. As were more cops.

“Avoid people that look like us,” said one of the cousins.

He was referring to a certain breed of young Puerto Rican males–flashy ones with nice clothes, bright jewelry, and expensive cars. They were most often well-connected drug dealers or gang members looking for trouble. Lots of legitimate money runs through these bright and elegant avenidas, but San Juan has a much darker side–a serious criminal underworld lurking in the shade from the palm trees.

That night was the first time I’d ever heard of La Perla.

It’s a hidden slum within Old San Juan. Legendary among locals, it inspires countless stories and rumors about drugs and murder. It’s location outside the city walls secludes its cogs and inner-workings from the curious gazes of nosy tourists.

A cemetery sits between Castillo de San Cristobal and the monument of El Morro in the distance.
On the left, a car exits through one of three main access points into La Perla slum. To the right, a cemetery sits outside the city’s walls.

These two guys knew all about it. They witnessed the plethora of gang activity, drug trafficking, and violent crimes that permeated the streets of San Juan. Shootings and stabbings were incredibly common. They described which sub-barrios to avoid while site-seeing and stressed the importance of self-awareness in Puerto Rico. They warned us about local gang members and their penchant for violence.

About 80% of crime on Puerto Rico is drug-related. The island’s geographic location and political ties with the U.S. make it a critical jump-off point for drug cartels and smugglers looking to sneak their products into America. Cocaine is still a big seller. In recent years, traffickers from Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico have started funneling drugs through Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic at much higher rates.

Most of the cocaine is destined for major cities along the eastern U.S. seaboard, like Miami, Atlanta, and New York. The rest of it remains on the island leaving gang members to wage violent wars against their rivals over money, drugs, and control of the local drug trade. The sky-high murder rate in Puerto Rico is a direct result of the major increase in drug traffic.

New-Old San Juan

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Old San Juan was in a state of disrepair. Prostitution & drugs plagued the streets, crime was rampant, and the infrastructure was in really poor shape. It was Detroit with palm trees. Politicians started pushing legislation to revitalize local businesses, clean up the neighborhoods, and turn the city into a Caribbean hotspot for tourists and honeymooners. They modeled the redevelopment of San Juan after the wildly successful Disneyfication of Manhattan (which still continues to this day).

The government created tax incentives to attract businesses and eliminated rent control to drive out poor folks. They started building endless hotels, clubs, and restaurants. The poorer segments of society were pushed away from the community–banished to the outskirts of the city where the cost of living was more affordable. That made plenty of room for hotel magnates and restaurant conglomerates to demolish and rebuild.

Overall, the government’s efforts to rejuvenate San Juan (particularly Old San Juan & the colonial neighborhoods) were successful.

Except for La Perla

The next day, Laura and I toured the fortress of Castillo de San Cristobal. A street vendor persuaded us into trying a Puerto Rican delicacy known as piragua (Spanish for “snow-cone”). How exotic! The pineapple flavored one was the best. We stopped to enjoy our frozen treats on a grassy hill as a group of students gathered nearby to eat their lunches.

Then, Laura pointed it out.

La Perla sits between two historic Spanish forts in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The micro-slum of La Perla sits against the ocean, nestled between two historic forts in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Four hundred feet from snow-cone-eating tourists and students on field trips sat La Perla.

The infamous drug-infested slum was smaller than I’d imagined. It stretched about 600 yards or so along the rocky coastline. It was completely secluded and tucked away between the ocean waves and the old fortress walls that once protected the city from invasions. An ideal location for anyone wishing to partake in illegal activities in private.

And it was certainly the most picturesque slum I’d ever seen.

A basketball court on the outskirts of La Perla. Concerts and gatherings are held here. We could hear chickens squabbling nearby.
A basketball court on the outskirts of La Perla where weekly concerts are held in an effort to change the community’s poor reputation.

La Perla originated in the 19th century as a zoning area for cemeteries, slaughterhouses, and slaves to stay outside the city walls away from the community center. Over time, farmers and the city’s poorer residents established their homes there.

With Old San Juan under the scrutiny of a clean-up effort by local government, the drug dealers and gang members moved to La Perla in droves to lay low and begin new enterprises. The DEA estimates about $20 million worth of drugs are sold within the slum each year. Drug traffickers, arms dealers, and slumlords control the neighborhood with impunity.

Laura’s cousins explained that, for the most part, law enforcement leaves La Perla alone. Aside from an incredibly rare police raid in 2011 spurred by international criticism due to record-breaking murder rates, the cops simply hang back and make sure violence doesn’t spill into areas where tourists frequent.

A self-governing system of illegal activity operates within the slum–a real-life Puerto Rican version of The Wire. With cops looking the other way, the black market can thrive out of plain view which keeps crime off the busy streets and away from tourists. The city maintains a safe, positive image and the criminals continue to rake in big profits. Everyone is happy! Except the residents of La Perla

So, is it safe..?

Generally speaking, outsiders and tourists are not the target of violence in Puerto Rico. It’s a safe place to visit and I recommend it to friends and family.

It’s even safe within the boundaries of La Perla, relatively speaking, of course. Outsiders only enter La Perla for one reason: to buy drugs. Dealers don’t want their customers harmed or scared away–that’s bad for business. So, outsiders are usually allowed to enter and exit unscathed during the day.

However, flashy unsuspecting tourists can easily find trouble. Unless you’re desperately trying to feed a bad dope habit, I’d reconsider venturing into the slum for an adventure.

Tourist maps posted in the city often omit the existence of La Perla’s streets to deter tourists from accidentally wandering into the high crime areas. Even though it sits mere steps from major tourist attractions, there are only three main access points to La Perla. Each one is clearly marked with plenty of graffiti and grime–the international symbol for “this is a bad neighborhood.”

We chose not to breach the inner walls of the slum during our stay and only explored the outskirts during the day. We were not willing to take the risk of ruining our rare opportunity for a romantic Caribbean getaway in the name of spontaneous journalistic adventure.

All of the same “Rules of Street Smarts” in the U.S. (or any other country for that matter) apply in San Juan: Don’t flash your cash, look like you belong, walk with confidence, and know exactly where you shouldn’t be.

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