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Eight Puerto Rican Prisoners Drown in Flooded Van

On November 7, 2011 in Puerto Rico, eight prisoners died in a transport van trapped in rising floodwaters. The van contained two guards and ten shackled prisoners, all of whom were pre-trial detainees; most had been unable to afford bail and were being transported to a detention center in Arecibo. Two of the prisoners who drowned were to be released that day.

The tragedy occurred during a torrential downpour when the guards took a shortcut in Arecibo to avoid flooded streets. On the new route, the transport van met two vehicles coming from the opposite direction, both of which stopped to warn of impassable water ahead. Undeterred, the guards drove on until the van became stuck in rising water.

The guards refused to unshackle the prisoners, fearing they might escape. Nearby residents heard the prisoners’ cries for help as the van began to submerge. Hector Serrano said he and another man rescued the guards and two prisoners through a hole they cut in the van’s roof. However, he said the guards refused to give them their keys so they could free the remaining prisoners.

“They were nervous,” said Serrano. “The guards did not want to let them out ... supposedly because they would run away.”

Testifying at an official inquiry, surviving prisoner Jason Santiago Lopez described how the guards had caused the tragedy by driving into the flooded area. He also added a few words for his rescuers.

“I thank them from the bottom of my heart,” said Lopez, who was visibly shaken. “It was an unforgettable experience.”

Prosecutor Chico Juarbe noted that the prisoners had “asked the driver to take another route because the van would not be able to go through” the rising floodwaters.

In February 2012, the family of one of the eight prisoners who drowned, Juan Huertas Cumbas, filed a lawsuit against Puerto Rican government officials, seeking $1 million in damages.

The guard who was driving the van, Hector Cruz Santiago, was charged with eight counts of negligent homicide. Convicted on March 30, 2012, he faces less than four years in prison.

Sources: Puerto Rico Daily Sun,,, Associated Press

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