How Puerto Rico is Dissolving a Toxic Holiday Practice
By Adjanni Ramos; December 30, 2019
There’s a certain kind of chaotic, semi-magical realism to the holiday season in Puerto Rico. The island territory has become a popular tourist spot during the holiday season, as many would argue that the lower temperatures but higher humidity, make the local ecotourism much more enjoyable during the winter months. Not to mention, Puerto Ricans are renowned for the seriousness with which they celebrate Christmas. To many resident’s tradition is a way of life, one which they have been batting to preserve, when considering the challenges Puerto Rico has had to face in recent years. However, one tradition has been slowly disappearing from Puerto Rican practice due to the number of casualties it has taken over the years.
All over Latin America during the holiday season, which includes Christmas, New Years and Three Kings Day, many citizens take to their backyards with their guns and shoot at the air in order to express their glee at the end of the passing year, or to celebrate the holidays itself. The practice known as “Balas al Aire” (Shots in the Air), which is practiced all over Latin America, leading some to believe it comes from Spanish origins, takes an unmeasurable number of deaths each year all over the world.
In 2018 Balas al Aire took as many as 101 victims – dead and injured – in Venezuela. In Mexico, a U.N. study made in May, 2016, reported 136 deaths between 2014 and 2015 all caused by stray bullets from Balas al Aire; 41% of which were children. More recently in Buenos Aires, Argentina, four victims were reported on Christmas Eve from Balas al Aire, tw of which included a 14-year-old injured girl, and a 30-year-old man who died from his injury.
In Puerto Rico, much like the clandestine “pitorro” – local moonshine that is made and sold within the small mountain towns – police are actively weary of its practice and try to stop it if possible. However, unlike moonshine, Balas al Aire is actively unwelcomed and no longer supported by the general public. The social campaign No Mas Balas al Aire (No More Shots in the Air) – which is supported by local political and social leaders – has successfully prevented stray bullet related injuries on the island since 2012. The last victim was a 15-year-old girl named Karla Michelle Negrón, who was injured and killed from a stray Balas al Aire bullet.
The local government has taken several measures to discourage Balas al Aire every incoming year. Puerto Rico has some of the strictest gun laws in the United States. Licenses are limited up to 2 firearms per license holder with a limit of 50 bullets a year for said firearms. Not to mention unregistered firearms are automatically registered as first glance evidence to commit a crime if found on a person. Despite this, Puerto Rico still has one of the highest numbers of firearm related deaths within the United States for such a small population.
Thankfully though, a full 7-years have passed without any stray bullet related injuries during the holidays in Puerto Rico. Both the locals and incoming tourists are glad it’s continued to stay that way so far. But despite the efforts to completely dissolve the toxic practice of shooting aimlessly into the air, especially on a small island where population is high and space is limited, it is still very common for locals to be caroling in their garages with local traditional instruments and plenty of cheer. The quiet but still distinct sound of machine gun and pistol fire in the background, still hiding behind the songs of Christmas past.