Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Search warrant issued for officials' mobile phones in Puerto Rico as political crisis deepens

Protesters take to the streets in US territory's biggest wave of demonstrations in years

Police arrest a man as protesters demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello following the leak of an offensive, obscenity-laden online chat between him and his advisers. AP
Police arrest a man as protesters demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello following the leak of an offensive, obscenity-laden online chat between him and his advisers. AP

A Puerto Rico judge issued search warrants for the mobile phones of government officials involved in a crude and offensive online chat, the leak of which has set off a political crisis that threatens to bring down the US territory’s governor.

Kelvin Carrasco, a spokesman for the island’s Justice Department, said on Tuesday that the warrants were approved overnight and issued to those who had yet to turn over their phones.

Mr Carrasco did not identify the officials.

The warrants raise the possibility that some of the 12 men in the chat, including former and current government officials, could face legal problems, deepening the crisis around Governor Ricardo Rossello.

For the past week and a half, protesters have taken to the streets in Puerto Rico’s biggest wave of demonstrations in at least 15 years.

They are demanding that the governor step down after the release of an 889-page transcript showing Mr Rossello in a chat filled with obscenities with top advisers and at least one lobbyist.

The group insulted women and mocked constituents, including victims of Hurricane Maria.

Mr Rossello insulted two female politicians and made fun of an obese man with whom he posed in a photo. The participants also talked about politics and government contracts.

The island’s main opposition party and others have accused them of legal and ethical breaches, including intervening in public policy matters when they were not authorised to do so.

The opposition has called on the authorities to investigate.

Those who said they turned over their phones as requested by justice officials last week include Ricardo Llerandi, the chief of staff, Alfonso Orona, a former legal adviser to the governor, and former public affairs secretary Ramon Rosario.

The leaked chat intensified anger about government corruption and mismanagement, which many blame for a 13-year recession and a debt crisis that has led to austerity measures, including pension cuts and school closures.

Many resent Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Maria, which devastated the island nearly two years ago and led to thousands of deaths.

A small group of protesters clashed with police overnight, and a teargas canister set a car on fire in the old colonial section of Puerto Rico’s capital in which the governor’s mansion is situated.

Demonstrators affected by tear gas thrown by the police run during clashes in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, July 22, 2019. Protesters are demanding Rossello step down following the leak of an offensive, obscenity-laden online chat between him and his advisers that triggered the crisis. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)
Demonstrators affected by tear gas thrown by the police run during clashes in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, July 22, 2019. Protesters are demanding Rossello step down following the leak of an offensive, obscenity-laden online chat between him and his advisers that triggered the crisis. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

The protests have escalated to a point where many wonder how Mr Rossello will be able to govern.

He told Fox News on Monday that he had already apologised and made amends after the chat leak.

But many Puerto Ricans pledged to keep protesting until he stood down, no matter how long it took.

“We can endure anything,” said Francisco Javier Diaz, 30, a chemical engineer from the central mountain town of Corozal. “We have the power and the resilience. And the truth is, we’re fed up.”

When pressed about who still supported him, Mr Rossello stumbled to give a name until he finally settled on the mayor of San Sebastian, a tiny town in western Puerto Rico.

Hours later, San Sebastian Mayor Javier Jimenez issued a statement noting that governors can be impeached.

Updated: July 24, 2019 08:43 AM

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