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Trial by Fire

How Nina Droz Franco became a face of Puerto Rican resistance
Update: On June 12, 2018, a month after this article was filed, Nina Droz Franco stood before judge Aida Delgado Colón to receive her sentence. In her first public statement since her arrest, she decried the her conditions, and those of her fellow prisoners.  She denounced the Bureau of Prisons for “abuses and barbarities” after Maria, as well as the constant sexual harassment, the denial of visits, the grinding medical neglect. Judge Colón sentenced her to thirty-seven months in prison, minus time served.

The Centro Popular building on San Juan’s Golden Mile is nineteen stories of glass and steel—a fittingly impenetrable monument to the reach of finance capitalism. The structure belongs to the Banco Popular, Puerto Rico’s banking titan—which renders it a natural target for protests. The center’s large, street-level windows do not help.

On May Day, 2017, in the last moments of a massive, union-led anti-austerity protest, masked young people charged through clouds of tear gas and smashed the glass windows of the Centro Popular into thousands of glittering fragments. A camera caught a couple of protestors, faces concealed, kneeling in the frame made by a bashed-out window, as the pair tried, unsuccessfully, to set a piece of paper alight. The man was never caught. The woman was arrested later that day, when she sat blocking traffic. She had not done the best job of concealing her identity: the cops recognized her later by her pink hair, her shredded jeans, the hot pink cast on her hand. She was Nina Droz Franco, a tattoo model, University of Puerto Rico student, and veteran of the Puerto Rican punk rock scene. Among those arrested, she alone was slapped with two federal charges carrying stiff minimum sentences.

Having accepted a plea bargain in July 2017, Droz has spent the last year in federal prison, waiting to receive her sentence. Outside, while the island combats the overlapping cruelties of fiscal austerity and post-Maria neglect, players on each end of the political spectrum have adopted Droz as a symbol. To many pro-independence leftists who supported the protests, she is a political prisoner. For the pro-statehood right, she is a folk demon, half-witch and half-terrorist: “The Girl Who Breathes Fire.”

The Sound of Breaking Glass

The day of Droz’s arrest, she was one of sixty thousand demonstrators in San Juan alone. For May Day, unions and student groups had called a general strike to protest the unelected financial control board—La Junta in Spanish—and PROMESA, a plan enacted by the U.S. Congress to start liquidating the territory’s $73 billion of debt. As Greece and other distressed Eurozone nations found during their own debt crises earlier in the decade, the neoliberal remedy of first resort was a hardline battery of austerity measures—the quack medicine of school closures, tuition hikes, tax raises, and pension cuts that is mathematically guaranteed to kill the patient. Only, since Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, it lacked the option of facing down the public-sector cramdowns, as Greece’s short-lived Syriza government famously sought to do. From across the city, marches converged on the Golden Mile in San Juan’s business district, Hato Rey, where La Junta’s headquarters sat. In Puerto Rico, the Obama-appointed board has complete authority to implement its austerity plan, and its seats are filled with members of the banking class, including Jose Carrión III, cousin of Banco Popular’s CEO, Richard Carrión.

For most of the day, the protest had the air of a parade, but as the march wound down, masked young people sprayed some graffiti and smashed windows in the few buildings whose owners had neglected to board them up—most notably the Centro Popular. At the first sign of shattered glass, the police filled the streets with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and the cracks of their batons. They continued to spray gas at the fleeing crowds, and even into a train station where commuters unrelated to the protest had been hiding. Police arrested twenty people that May Day, including Nina Droz.

At the first sign of shattered glass, the police filled the streets with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and the cracks of their batons.

This April, I met up with Mariana Nogales, a lawyer and activist who had become Droz’s most vocal public advocate—though she does not represent her in her court case. Last May Day, Nogales had set out to follow the march as a legal observer, with a group of radical lawyers who called themselves the Legal Solidarity Brigade. Late at night, while Nogales’s crew was waiting for protesters to be released from the Bayamon jail, her phone buzzed. At first she didn’t believe the name in the text. “I know Nina maybe since 2014, but from the punk scene,” Nogales told me, “The last [thing] I ever thought was that she would be arrested in a political protest.” Nogales texted back not to worry, that there were lawyers waiting to help. Nogales’s crew of lawyers never had a chance to interview Droz. No one knows exactly what set Droz apart from the other demonstrators corralled into custody that day. Most likely it was her pink cast—easily identifiable, and thus against protocol for any protestor taking part in a black bloc action. If she had been planning in advance to burn something, I surely she would have dressed to blend in. Late in the night, before Droz could speak with a lawyer, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms spirited her off to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Guaynabo, where she was charged with one count of attempting to, and one count of conspiring to, damage or destroy a building used in interstate commerce by means of fire. As federal crimes, the charges carried sentences ranging from five to twenty years.

“This is normal in a case with political connotations,” Puerto Rican defense attorney Juan Ramon Acevedo told me. “When the federal government sees a threat to its colonial power, it will go down heavy on it.” His comments brought to mind the more than two hundred protesters arrested during Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Though the case against them has begun to implode, more than fifty of them still face possible sentences of up to sixty years in jail—among them at least one journalist swept up in the riot-style arrests in Washington.

The Model Bad Girl

I initially sought to draw out this converging criminalization of dissent by interviewing and profiling Nina Droz, but I couldn’t gain face-to-face access to her at the federal prison in Guaynabo; the Puerto Rico Bureau of Prisons does not consider The Baffler to be a news outlet worthy of a media visit. So I’ve had to think instead about the ways that prison can convert a human into a political symbol, though the human herself remains trapped in a cage.

Nina Droz Franco, thirty-seven, is the daughter of a teacher and a famous basketball player who participated in the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics. Inheriting her father’s athleticism, she competed internationally as an equestrian, winning several championships. She got her B.A. on the island and later studied sound engineering at Full Sail University in Florida (where she had her only previous run-in with the law, a misdemeanor charge for participating in a bar fight). In 2009, she returned to her parents’ home in Bayamon, where she helped care for her dying grandmother and studied at the local branch of the University of Puerto Rico. She held down jobs as an art teacher, and at the Department of Labor, but she worked most steadily as a model. Six feet tall, stunning, and covered in ornate tattoos, she went by “Nina Riot” on Model Mayhem, a site alternative models use to find work. At one point, she played a small role as a fire-breather in an independent movie. According to interviews her mother has given in the Puerto Rican press, Droz has suffered from depression since childhood. My friends in the San Juan punk scene described her as someone who relished getting in her punches in the mosh pit—and two sources told me that Droz’s aggressive personality could at times veer into abuse.

The neoliberal remedy of first resort was a hardline battery of austerity measures—the quack medicine of school closures, tuition hikes, tax raises, and pension cuts that is mathematically guaranteed to kill the patient.

Politically, Nina Droz Franco was an independentista—someone who believes Puerto Rico should be independent from the United States. But Droz’s brand of independence activism has less to do with policy than iconography. Even the pictures she posted on Facebook of Pedro Albizu Campos (founder of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party) and the party’s flag are far outnumbered by the hundreds of posts she made trying to find homes for abandoned dogs. At the University of Puerto Rico, she’d attended a few meetings by campus activists, but she was not a member, let alone a leader, of any group. That May Day, she was one student among thousands protesting La Junta’s plans to gut the university. According to several people who knew her, she had brought her fire-eater’s kit of accelerant and torches because she wanted to perform as a fire-eater at the demonstration.

In the hands of prosecutors, the unexceptional story of Droz’s protest career would soon mutate into something far more dramatic: the lurid saga of a bikini-model arsonist who had tried to burn down a bank. “[The prosecutor] wanted to create the perception in Puerto Ricans that she had gotten her hands on a very dangerous leader of a terrorist organization working to overthrow the government,” Nogales told me. Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood right has long propagated Red-Scare-style stereotypes about Nationalist leaders. In the 1930s, they were terrorist fanatics, in the 1960s, terrorist pawns of Cuba, and now, they are low-life terrorist commies, probably hired by Venezuela. Puerto Rico remains in many ways a deeply Catholic, macho society, in which Droz represented the ultimate bad girl, right down to her neck tattoos. During their press conference and throughout two months of pre-trial hearings, prosecutors drove this image home. They “portrayed her as a classic pro-independentista—as a pervert and degenerate,” lawyer Ramon Acevedo told me. At a press conference on May 3, Jennifer Hernández, head of Puerto Rico’s violent crime unit, bestowed on Droz a name that would stick with her in court documents and on social media: “the girl who breathes fire.”

Fear Factor

This body of readily deployed, misogynist political caricatures provided a perfect distraction, in other words, from the draconian economic policies that the May Day general strike had tried to challenge. When, six days after the prosecution’s press conference, Nina’s attorney Eric Vos told a reporter that that his client was being prosecuted because “nobody wants to talk about the reason” that the mass demonstration took place, the judge immediately slapped Vos with a gag order.

The judge also denied Droz bail—a move that’s not uncommon in federal prosecutions in Puerto Rico, according to the attorneys I’ve spoken with there. On the mainland United States, a defendant with a single misdemeanor conviction would almost certainly have been granted bail. Yet here again, the stable of bad-girl behaviors that Droz symbolized transformed her during the case’s bail proceedings into a prefab enemy of the people. With clear relish, the prosecutors spelled out Nina’s sins: no regular job, got into fights, marijuana traces in her blood. When police searched Droz’s phone, they found text messages from April 30, where she described punching a man who she saw abusing a dog. She broke her hand on his face—thus the pink cast, so recognizable in security videos. She was a danger to her community, said federal prosecutor Rosa Emilia Rodríguez. Her parents could not control her. So she’d stay in jail.

In the hands of prosecutors, the unexceptional story of Droz’s protest career would soon mutate into something far more dramatic: the lurid saga of a bikini-model arsonist who had tried to burn down a bank.

In Puerto Rico, Droz’s mother told the press, 90 percent of federal defendants are found guilty at trial. Faced with long odds and a potential two decades in prison, Droz pled guilty on July 12, 2017 to her second charge—the lesser count of “conspiring” to use fire to damage or destroy commercial property—in exchange for the prosecution dropping the first, thus reducing her potential sentence from twenty years to between two and five. On her Facebook feed, trolls responded to the plea deal with a steady tirade of abuse echoing the subtext advanced by the prosecution team: Droz was a monster, a terrorist, trash who had it coming—and worse.

For other leftist activists, meanwhile, the message was clear. Even those who disliked Droz, or disavowed her actions, stressed that the government had made her a scapegoat, and an example to anyone who might rebel. I met a young hotel worker in old San Juan who had marched at the protest. He had seen the pink-haired Droz on TV without knowing her name. “I remember when she was arrested,” he told me. “They want us to be afraid.”

Independent People

The Puerto Rican independence movement has produced countless political prisoners. Don Pedro Albizu Campos, founder of the Nationalist Party, was famously tortured with radiation exposure during his long years in solitary. The great poets Clemente Soto Velez, Francisco Matos Paoli, and Juan Antonio Corretjer all served long prison sentences for advocating national independence for the island colony. Communist militant Oscar López Rivera served thirty-six years for his leadership of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a group allegedly responsible for more than a hundred bombings inside the United States. Blanca Caneles, who in 1950 led a failed nationalist uprising in the mountains, drew a sentence of life plus sixty years as a result. (She was granted a full pardon in 1967.) Beyond these well-known names identified with the island’s storied nationalist uprisings, there are also hundreds of anonymous rank-and-file nationalist dissenters. Their bodies once filled the cells of San Juan’s La Princesa prison, and their photos now adorn the walls of Jayuya’s Museum of Our Martyrs. Though Droz herself had never belonged to any organized political group, since her incarceration some movement supporters have slotted her into this lineage.

Mariana Nogales founded the Committee for the Friends and Family of Nina Droz to advocate for her release, holding press conferences at which Nina’s mother spoke with the raw pain common to all mothers of incarcerated children. Small marches took place across the island, demanding her freedom, along with that of Ana Belén—a Puerto Rican CIA analyst who leaked information to Cuba, in her words, to help Cuba withstand U.S. aggression. Opinion writers in the press took up her cause—not just in the socialist Claridad, but in Nuevo Día, the island’s major newspaper. On International Women’s Day 2018, supporters tucked red roses into the fence surrounding the federal prison where Droz was held. The Nationalist Party arranged a sixteen-hour concert in support of Droz and Belén. Oscar López Rivera called for her freedom, and Rafael Cancel Miranda, a respected Nationalist elder who was once imprisoned in Alcatraz after he and four comrades shot up Congress in 1954, wrote a poem to her:

But you will win, Nina Droz,
you are stronger than an empire,
with you, you carry the love
that made Don Pedro [Albizu Campos] invincible.

A less sonorous testimonial came from a prominent activist I met at a bar in Santurce—one that nonetheless captured the real significance of Droz’s prosecution for dissenting Puerto Ricans. “I don’t know if she wanted to be a political prisoner, but it happened,” he said. “It could have happened to anyone. And I’d argue that the state had destroyed more than any protest ever could.”

The Nina Droz Contingent

Prison is a machine for breaking people, regardless of why they ended up inside. In Guaynabo’s Metropolitan Detention Center, where Droz is held, Nogales told me that guards routinely humiliate the female prisoners, mocking their weight and subjecting them to cruel sexual insults. “[Droz] has a tough character, and I think that’s precisely what has made her survive,” Nogales said. Her first stint in solitary came weeks after her plea bargain—“concealing a wire” was the charge—when she claimed she received her food without utensils, forcing her to eat with her hands in the permanently lit grey box of the SHU (special housing unit), and that guards made kissing sounds at her window. She did not receive her psychiatric medication for two months. On behalf of her fellow prisoners, she began sending Mariana Nogales reports about medical neglect and abuse by guards.

When Maria hit in late September 2017, prisoners suffered, just as they had in New Orleans during Katrina. In Guaynabo, Droz wrote to Nogales, the women remained trapped in pitch black cells. There was little food, the toilets overflowed, and after the cistern holding their water ran out, they received only a single small bottle of water a day. Droz wrote that they lacked “even the water to wash their mouths.” They choked from lack of air. After seven days, the women inmates were shackled, dressed in paper jumpsuits, and put on a plane to Florida. It took Droz’s mother a week to learn where she was: in a separate wing of a men’s prison, the Federal Detention Center in Tallahassee. Here Nina spent twenty days in the hole, this time because she translated into English another prisoner’s letter accusing the warden of medical neglect. In January, she returned to Guaynabo. As I write, she is again in solitary confinement, this time for accusations of trying to dispose of two pills. She will receive her formal sentence in June.

In the single letter I received from her, she told me Albizu Campos was her hero. She signed it “Borinkén Libre,” referencing the indigenous name for the island.

In April, I visited Droz’s mother in Bayamon. In her seventies, Aurea Franco has high cheekbones and deep eyes that reveal the source of her daughter’s beauty. Her political convictions are equally anti-colonialist. In the courtyard of the family home, she keeps the many street dogs that Droz rescued. We sat together for an hour. She told me that her daughter was a strong girl, who loved her homeland, who had learned so much in prison, who had been made a scapegoat to frighten her fellow protesters, and suffered greatly for it at the hands of the U.S. government. Aurea visits Nina twice a week, except when her daughter is denied any visitors at all.

“I remember when she was arrested,” he told me. “They want us to be afraid.”

On May Day, 2018, a year to the day after Nina Droz’s arrest, thousands of Puerto Ricans protested in San Juan. They marched again against the ravages of austerity, the school closures, the humiliations of colonialism, the mendacity of the Roselló administration, the slow and deliberate starving of the island. This time, though, police would not let protesters walk down the Golden Mile. When a few protesters attempted to push through the police line, the heavily armored officers began firing rubber-coated bullets and tear gas canisters at the crowd. After the protesters fled, the police rampaged through Rio Piedras, invading the houses of activists, beating and snatching whoever they could lay their hands on. On Twitter, I saw my friend, classical musician Luis Rodriguez Sanchez, held face down on the concrete in handcuffs, surrounded by six cops. Over the next few days, cop cars lingered intimidatingly outside of San Juan’s activist spaces. Yet again, the ACLU condemned Puerto Rican police for their violence.

After the protests, Puerto Rican TV showed footage of 2017’s smashed windows as though to lend credence to this year’s repression. On social media, pro-statehood Twitter trolls posted pictures of a young female protester holding a rock, labeled “the next Nina Droz.” In New York City’s May Day protests, forty Puerto Ricans marched in the Nina Droz Contingent—so named, according to one pro-independence activist, “in honor of her work and sacrifice.” As they walked down Broadway, they held aloft photos of Droz’s face.

This story was written and illustrated with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation.