A Puerto Rican judge issued search warrants for the mobile phones of government officials involved in a crude online chat whose leak has set off a political crisis that threatens to bring down the United States territory’s governor.
One of the search warrants said that government officials used the chat to transmit official and confidential information to private citizens in potential violation of ethics laws.
Kelvin Carrasco, a spokesman for the island’s Justice Department, said Tuesday that the warrants were approved overnight and issued to those who had yet to turn over their phones. He did not identify the officials and would not comment further.
The possibility that some of the 12 men in the chat, including former and current government officials, could face legal trouble deepened the crisis around Governor Ricardo Rossello.
For the past week and a half, protesters have taken to the streets in Puerto Rico’s biggest wave of demonstrations in at least 15 years, demanding the governor step down in a furore set off by the release of an 889-page transcript showing Rossello participating in the obscenity-laden chat with top advisers and at least one lobbyist.
“If the people want him to resign, his duty as governor is to resign because we’re the ones who choose,” said Alexander Ortiz, an 18-year-old university student from Gurabo.
The chat participants talked about politics and government contracts and also insulted women and mocked constituents, including victims of Hurricane Maria. Rossello called a female politician a “whore,” referred to another as a “daughter of a bitch,” and made fun of an obese man with whom he posed in a photo.
Rossello sounded a conciliatory note in a brief statement Tuesday.
“When one side speaks legitimately, the other has the responsibility to listen carefully,” he said. “The people are speaking and I have to listen. These have been moments of complete reflection and of taking decisions based on the concerns of the people of Puerto Rico and of their best interests.”
Rossello said that from now on, he will talk only about government-related matters.
Chat participants who said they either met justice officials or turned over their mobile phones as requested last week include Chief of Staff Ricardo Llerandi; a former legal adviser to the governor, Alfonso Orona; and former Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario.
‘We’re fed up’
The leaked chat has intensified long-smouldering anger over government corruption and mismanagement that many blame for a 13-year recession and a severe debt crisis that has led to pension cuts and school closings. Many are also resentful over Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Maria, which devastated the island nearly two years ago and led to thousands of deaths.
As the search warrants were being approved, a small group of protesters clashed with police overnight, and a tear gas canister set a car on fire in the old colonial section of Puerto Rico‘s capital where the governor’s mansion is situated.
The protests have escalated to a point where many wonder how Rossello will be able to govern.
Rossello dug his heels in late Monday, telling Fox News that he has already apologised and made amends following the leak of the chat.
But many Puerto Ricans vowed to keep protesting until he steps down, no matter how long it takes. Tuesday marked their 11th day.
“This guy – this governor – is taking away from us everything we are proud of,” Elizabeth Idalis, a Puerto Rican protester, told Al Jazeera.
“We need him to step down. He did something he asked for forgiveness and that’s ok but he needs to respond for what he did,” she added.
Javier Diaz, a 30-year-old chemical engineer from the mountain town of Corozal, told the Associated Press that protesters will not give up.
“We can endure anything,” Javier said. “We have the power and the resilience. And the truth is, we’re fed up.”
Anti-Rossello demonstrations were also held in cities across the United States such as Los Angeles, New York and Boston which have large Puerto Rican communities.
Al Jazeera and news agencies