SAN JUAN – Puerto Rican justice officials on Tuesday were executing search warrants for the mobile phones of top associates of Gov. Ricardo Rossello amid a corruption scandal that provoked 10 days of protests demanding his resignation.
The sometimes-violent demonstrations, which drew an estimated 500,000 people to the streets of San Juan on Monday, and a federal corruption probe of Rossello’s administration are just the latest crisis to rock the bankrupt island still struggling to recover from a massive 2017 hurricane that killed some 3,000 people.
A first-term governor in his first elected office, the 40-year-old Rossello has thus far resisted calls to step down as leader of the U.S. territory, though he said in an online video message on Sunday that he would resign as leader of his political party and not seek re-election in 2020.
“A court authorized yesterday search warrants that are being executed today,” Mariana Cobian, spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Justice Department, said in a statement. “Because it is an ongoing investigation, we will not make additional comments at this time.”
The warrants targeted Rossello himself as well as the phones of his top associates involved in the chat, Cobian said. She declined to say whether the governor had surrendered his phone.
The publication on July 13 of chat messages in which Rossello and top aides used profane and sometimes violent language to describe female politicians as well as singer Ricky Martin unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of devastating hurricanes in 2017, alleged corruption in his administration and the island’s bankruptcy process.
The protests were also sparked by U.S. authorities’ announcement of a federal indictment involving six people, including two former high-ranking Puerto Rico government officials, charged with conspiracy and other crimes in connection with millions of dollars in federal Medicaid and education funds.
Police fired tear gas to disperse crowds late Monday and early Tuesday while protesters threw bottles and other objects during protests aimed at forcing Rossello to resign.
Rossello on Monday asked Puerto Ricans to give him another chance.
“I used words that I apologized for but I’ve also taken significant actions in the direction of helping vulnerable sectors,” Rossello told Fox News, explaining he had made policy changes significant to women and the LGBTQ community.
Those two groups were frequent targets of messages exchanged between Rossello and his aides in 889 pages of online group chats published July 13 by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.
The island’s leading newspaper, prominent Democratic officials on the island and in the mainland United States and Republican President Donald Trump have all called on Rossello to step down.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, an opposition politician running for governor in 2020, said Rossello had run out of time.
Trump also blasted the “terrible” 40-year-old governor, who is affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party and with whom Trump feuded in 2017 over the adequacy of the federal response to Hurricane Maria.