AIBONITO, Puerto Rico—Cradling an M-16 rifle, Army National Guard Lt. Anthony Santiago stares down cars at a police checkpoint in his latest mission: helping to stem a vicious crime wave in Puerto Rico's central mountains.
The island's once-tranquil heartland has become a new refuge for drug gangs flushed out of the big cities, local officials say, prompting Gov. Luis Fortuno to deploy National Guard troops to help police restore the peace.
Despite some ambivalence toward American troops, crime-weary Puerto Ricans say they are desperate for reprieve following one of the U.S. Caribbean territory's most violent years on record.
To Santiago, who previously served with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, manning a checkpoint here makes him feel like he is back in Iraq except for the lush green surroundings and the lack of respect shown by criminals compared to the suspected militants he detained during the war.
"In Iraq, your enemy is going to try to kill you, but when you catch them they're cooperative," he said. "Here in Puerto Rico, if you have to detain somebody for any reason, they are not very cooperative. They insult you and everything else."
Fortuno initially dispatched soldiers to the capital, San Juan, and other high-crime metropolitan areas in February, then agreed to send them to the mountains a month later at the request of local mayors. As many as 1,000 will be activated across the island. The guardsmen -- whose role is restricted to backing up police -- will stay until year's end as 1,000 new police recruits complete training at their academy.
Puerto Rico, which had its third-worst year on record in 2009 with 894 slain, is on track for just as bloody a year as the island struggles with a grinding recession. New York City, which has twice the island's population, had only 466 slayings last year.
Most of the violence is blamed on gangs battling for control of the cocaine and heroin trade. The island of 4 million people is a major transshipment point for drugs bound for the U.S. mainland.
But what is startling many Puerto Ricans is the surge in crime outside metropolitan areas.
Noel Torres Roca, police chief for the central mountain region, has tallied at least 11 murders so far this year in his five-town district, slightly ahead of last year's rate and well beyond those of tranquil decades past.
He attributes the rise to the migration of traffickers chased out of big cities by law- enforcement crackdowns and the construction of highways in the past decade that have made the island's center more accessible to everyone, including criminals.
"People from San Juan came and contaminated what we call the 'jibaros,' the people who work in agriculture, and convinced them you can make more money in drugs, or selling guns or stolen cars," Torres said.
Some of the crime has been brutal.
Earlier this month, gunmen opened fire inside a restaurant in the mountain town of Morovis, killing two men and a 15-year-old boy who was there to watch a basketball game on television. One of the slain men, a visitor from the San Juan area, was reportedly a suspect in a double homicide in which the bodies were found inside a torched car in nearby Orocovis.
Last Monday, U.S. agents and police arrested Elvin Torres Estrada, a man described as the island's biggest cocaine importer, in a raid on a ranch in the nearby town of Coamo. Officials say the arrest is evidence that criminals are using the region to hide from authorities.
The National Guard soldiers, many of whom come from the area, have been startled by the level of crime in their sleepy hometowns.
"With all the homicides, people don't want to go out now like they used to," said Santiago, 34, who is a native of Orocovis.
Torres said the soldiers are helping to reduce crime. By pairing off with his officers, he said they free up police to cover more of his territory.
"We need to cover some very big areas that we could not before this because we do not have much personnel," the police chief said.
In Aibonito, a town of 25,000 people nestled in the island's central mountains, Santiago and his troops ride inside police cruisers on drug busts, arrest raids and preventive patrols.
One resident, Jose Acartagena, said he is happy to see the soldiers. He said that in 2008 five people were killed inside his housing project in the span of less than a month.
"We don't go outside with the same confidence that we had before," said Acartagena, a 39-year-old taxi dispatcher and a father of four.
But not everyone supports the deployment.
Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. armed forces since becoming American citizens in 1917, but the military stirs resentment for some on an island where widespread protests prompted the Navy to close its Vieques bombing range in 2003.
The vice president of the small Independence Party, Maria de Lourdes Santiago, said the deployment has made people uncomfortable.
"It causes anxiety to see soldiers about on the streets with their long weapons," she said.
There has been only one case in which a guardsman fired his weapon and the suspect was killed: a shootout on a San Juan highway in which the police also opened fire.
The National Guard has helped police in places including New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and Washington during the presidential inauguration. Guardsmen are on their third law-enforcement mission in Puerto Rico since the 1990s, when troops led a crackdown in urban housing projects.
For the soldiers, the deployment is a welcome opportunity to help their communities.
"As a soldier you are always going overseas. Here you have an opportunity to help your hometown," said Spc. Jose Mateo, a Marine Corps veteran from Coamo.