SAN JUAN -- The year 2008 has been a bloody one in Puerto Rico, where last weekend the number of murders on the island passed the 800 mark for the year, the highest figure since 1996 when 868 people were slain.
With some 4 million inhabitants, this Free Associated State of the United States experiences an average of more than two killings a day.
Authorities say that around 80 percent of the slayings are related to drug trafficking.
If up to the mid-1990s murders occurred mainly in the metropolitan municipalities of San Juan, Bayamon, Carolina, Guaynabo and the southern town of Ponce, since then they have spread all over the island.
An element that remains constant over time is that the majority of the victims are men between the ages of 20 and 30.
The number of murders has remained below 800 since 1996 when there were 868. The record number of killings for the past 50 years took place in 1993 and 1994, with 954 and 995 respectively.
In an attempt to improve the situation, the University of Puerto Rico's Commission for the Prevention of Violence, or Coprevi, is carrying out a campaign dubbed "Let's Be Instruments of Peace" with the goal of "raising awareness about how important it is that all of us take an active part" in the problem.
"Statistics, studies and investigations come up with alarming figures revealing the toxic effects of violence," the chancellor of UPR's Cayey campus, Ram S. Lamba, said, adding that "with this campaign we go from prevention to action."
The Coprevi campaign, created by executive order in 2004 with "the vision that violence is a public-health problem that must be analyzed from an environmental perspective," consists of a series of TV commercials and press ads that use Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa as examples.
"We're no longer sending a message of prevention. With these advertisements we're inviting people to take action, using as models human beings who have worked to improve the quality of life in their countries," Lamba said.
Local personalities appearing in the Coprevi campaign are Sor Isolina Ferre, "who left a legacy of service to the most needy in the centers that bear her name," and Jose Vargas Vidot, director of Community Initiative "that brings services to marginalized groups like drug addicts and prostitutes."
The peace campaign includes a call to wear a white shirt on Jan. 19 as a sign of support, and the coming publication of a magazine highlighting the efforts of individuals and companies that stand out as "builders of peace."
"We all have the responsibility of helping to build peace. To encourage that, we're trying to bring together and unify the efforts that we know are being carried out by many different sectors in order to achieve our goal," the director de Coprevi, Samuel Figueroa, said.
Meanwhile, the public vision of the problem of violence is beginning to change and police superintendent Pedro Toledo acknowledges that it is not something that can be corrected simply by increasing the number of policemen. He said that a "serious" analysis has to be done with all sectors of society pitching in.
More and more people in Puerto Rico are calling for a revision of the traditional, exclusively punitive system of dealing with criminals.
The secretary of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, Miguel Pereira, has begun a novel program against addiction behind bars based on administering methadone. Results up to now have been positive.
On the Coprevi Web site - www.coprevi.org - are posted educational leaflets offering aid in resolving conflicts, anger management, and preventing from within the family habits that in the long run explode into violence.