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      The COVID-19 Pandemic in Puerto Rico: Exceptionality, Corruption and State-Corporate Crimes



            The COVID-19 global pandemic brings about a new episode in the multi-layered political, economic and humanitarian crisis affecting Puerto Rico since 2006. The 14-years-long crisis has been marked by the U.S. and P.R. governments' imposition of a permanent state of exception to deal with an economic crisis, bankruptcy, hurricanes, swarms of earthquakes and a pandemic. This paper argues that uses of the state of exception and executive orders created a regime of permission for corruption, state-corporate crimes and human rights violations, while exacerbating the impact of the pandemic, and manufacturing the conditions for further disasters. The paper engages in a sociolegal analysis of the cases of corruption and state-corporate crimes in the procurement of COVID-19 test-kits and medical equipment, and the role of the pharmaceutical corporations in undermining PR's capacity to react to the COVID-19 pandemic.


            Author and article information

            State Crime Journal
            Pluto Journals
            1 April 2021
            : 10
            : 1 ( doiID: 10.13169/statecrime.10.issue-1 )
            : 104-125
            [1 ] University of Illinois
            © 2021 International State Crime Initiative

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            state of exception,state-corporate crimes,corruption,colonialism,pharmaceutical industry


            1. PR is a U.S. unincorporated territory or colony since 1898. For a detailed analysis of the colonial and sociolegal history of PR see Atiles (2016b).

            2. See: www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/06/puerto-rico-14-states-see-record-covid-19-cases (accessed 12 August 2020).

            3. My translation from Spanish. For more details see: www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/notas/wanda-vazquez-insiste-que-el-aumento-en-contagios-por-covid-19-no-es-responsabilidad-del-gobierno/ (accessed 12 August 2020).

            4. As Dennis (2020b: 8) has shown, “PR had the lowest rate of tests done when compared to anywhere in the US; and according to a study published by the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, PR is among the countries least prepared to reopen its economy”.

            5. These included: maintaining the ongoing curfew from 10 pm to 5 am; the prohibition of alcohol sales after 7 pm; limiting the capacity of restaurants to 50 percent; among others.

            6. For update information visit www.salud.gov.pr/Pages/coronavirus.aspx (accessed October 9, 2020)

            7. Including executive order OE-2020- 76 of October 1, 2020.

            8. All the executive orders are available in: www.estado.pr.gov/es/ordenes-ejecutivas/ (accessed October 22, 2020).

            9. This is an unprecedented use of executive orders to evade legislative oversight, even in time of crisis (see Atiles 2020), and constitutes an clear overreach on the executive powers by the local government.

            10. My translation from Spanish. “The virus was productive”, was the phrase with which, by text message, Juan Maldonado announced to Roberto Rodríguez López, owner of Apex General Contractors, on the night of March 26, that he had been awarded the above-mentioned contract. For more details see: www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/notas/el-virus-fue-productivo-men sajes-de-texto-entre-dueno-de-apex-y-juan-maldonado/ (accessed 12 August 2020).

            11. Here I am following Whyte's (2014) conceptualisation of regime of permission and moment of rupture.

            12. For an in-depth analysis of the different emergency measures taken by global north and south countries, see the excellent work conducted by the International State Crime Initiative: http://statecrime.org/covid19/

            13. See Gallego et al. (2020). See also: www.transparency.org/en/news/corruption-and-the-corona virus (accessed 12 August 2020).

            14. See for example Cercel et al. (2020), Gerstle and Isaac (2020) and Neal (2019).

            15. For an in-depth analysis of the processes of normalisation and transformation of the state of exception in a dispositive of governance see Atiles (2016b), Atiles and Whyte (2018) and Reynolds (2017).

            16. In this paper, I do not engage in a study of corporate crime in the pharmaceutical industry per se, but rather, I will show how tax exemptions and deregulation of this sector by the U.S. and P.R. governments undermined PR's capacity to react to crises and disaster. The role of the pharmaceutical industry in state-corporate crimes, corruption and crimes of the powerful has been largely study by authors such as Braithwaite (1984), Griffin et al. (2008) and Rawlison (2017).

            17. For an in-depth analysis of disaster capitalism and the role of emergency administrators see Klein (2007).

            18. See: www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-14/covid-19-may-cost-puerto-rico-2-billion-in-taxes-board-says (accessed 12 August 2020).

            19. See: www.estudiostecnicos.com/pdf/Update-COVID-3-ENG-May-18.pdf (accessed 12 August 2020).

            20. See: Census QuickFacts: Puerto Rico, www.census.gov/quickfacts/PR (accessed 12 August 2020).

            21. See: “Children in poverty (100 percent poverty) in Puerto Rico,” https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/43-children-in-poverty-100-percent- poverty?loc=53&loct=4#detailed/4/any/false/37,871,870,573,869,36,868,867,133,38/any/321,322 (accessed 12 August 2020).

            22. Garriga-López (2020) has coined the concept of compounded disaster to refer to this multiplicity of disaster affecting PR. Similarly, Bonilla (2020) has coined the concept of coloniality of disaster to describe the multiplicity of disasters affecting PR.

            23. 26 U.S. Code § 936 - Puerto Rico and possession tax credit. The law came to an end on December 31, 2005.

            24. Among others the following pharmaceutical corporations operate in PR: Abbott, Pfizer, Abbvie, Baxter, Bristol Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson and Roche.

            25. I am following Cooper and Whyte (2017).

            26. This is ten times higher than that of the average U.S. state ($1,419), and nearly three times higher than that of the highest U.S. state ($5,491) (Bhatti and Sloan 2017).

            27. See: http://periodismoinvestigativo.com/2019/07/las-889-paginas-de-telegram-entre-rossello-nevares-y-sus-allegados/ (accessed 12 August 2020).

            28. Law 5 made a legislative declaration of the state of fiscal emergency, legitimating internal state of exception as the legal framework to deal with crises and disasters.

            29. Currently, Governor Vázquez and members of her government are under investigation for irregularities in the distribution of aid after the earthquakes and criminal mishandling of this disaster.

            30. The executive orders are: OE-2020-23; OE-2020-29; OE-2020-32; OE-2020-33; OE-2020-34; OE-2020-38; OE-2020-041; OE-2020-044; OE-2020-48; OE-2020-52; OE-2020; 54; OE-2020-60; OE-2020-62; OE-2020-64; OE-2020-66; OE-2020-76; OE-2020-77.

            31. S.3548 – 116th Congress (2019–2020) Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or the CARES Act.

            32. Simultaneously, the P.R. legislature passed Law 43 of April 16, 2020, which establishes as public policy that the treatment of COVID-19 should be free. However, as Wiscovitch and Sosa (2020) have shown, hospitals are still charging COVID-19 patients.

            33. The P.R. police had issued over 3,000 fines and arrested over 900 people in connection with alleged curfew violations. See: www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/seguridad/nota/lapoliciaemitesobre2000 denunciasporviolacionaltoquedequeda-2571567/ (accessed 12 August 2020).

            34. Sosa and Wiscovitch (2020) have pointed out at this point there is no clear reporting of the numbers of dead generated by COVID-19.

            35. The open economy invocated by this executive order has been maintained in the following executive orders.

            36. See: www.industryweek.com/the-economy/article/21132824/puerto-ricos-pharma-push (accessed 12 August 2020).

            37. See: R. de la C. 1741 June 29, 2020. This report came out at the same time another report (R. de La C. 1696 of June 20, 2020) in which the PRHR investigated the cases of corruption and criminal negligence surrounding the management of the swarm of earthquakes. Additionally, on July 3, the Department of Justice concluded an investigation on the management of the swarm of earthquakes and make a recommendation that Governor Wanda Vázquez should be investigated for six charges of corruption, plus negligence.

            38. Castro Business is a local corporation specialising in food distribution and with contracts with the P.R. government and the P.R. National Guard since 2008 (Valentín and Cintrón 2020).

            39. 313 LLC and its president, Ricardo Vázquez Hernández, had received tax incentives and exceptions from the P.R. government in areas ranging from legal advice to the video games and electronics industry.

            40. The team was composed by Mabel Cabeza (Department of Health and Governor Office), Adil Rosa (subsecretary of the Department of Health) and Mariel Rivera (Department of Health Purchasing).

            41. Tombs (2016) has developed a similar analysis with the concept of social murder.


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