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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.
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.