SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A Puerto Rico judge issued search warrants for the cellphones of government officials involved in a crude and offensive online chat whose leak has set off a political crisis that threatens to bring down the U.S. territory’s governor.
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.
While he didn’t say what was under investigation, the warrants raise the possibility that some of the 12 men in the chat, including former and current government officials, could face legal trouble, deepening the crisis around Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
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 crisis set off by the release of an 889-page transcript showing Rosselló participating in an obscenity-laden chat with top advisers and at least one lobbyist.
The group insulted women and mocked constituents, including victims of Hurricane Maria. Rosselló 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. The participants also talked about politics and government contracts.
The island’s main opposition party and others have accused chat participants of legal and ethical violations, including intervening in public policy matters when they were not authorized to do so, and called on authorities to investigate.
Those who said they turned over their cellphones as requested by justice officials last week include Chief of Staff Ricardo Llerandi; a former legal adviser to the governor, Alfonso Orona; and former Public Affairs Secretary Ramón Rosario.
The leaked chat has intensified long-smoldering anger over government corruption and mismanagement that many blame for a 13-year recession and a severe debt crisis that has led to austerity measures, including 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 Rosselló will be able to govern.
Rosselló dug his heels in late Monday, telling Fox News that he has already apologized 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.
“We can endure anything,” said Francisco Javier Díaz, a 30-year-old chemical engineer from the central mountain town of Corozal. “We have the power and the resilience. And the truth is, we’re fed up.”
When pressed during the Fox News interview about who still supported him, Rosselló stumbled to provide a name until he finally settled on someone.
“The mayor of San Sebastián,” he said, referring to a tiny town in western Puerto Rico. Hours later, San Sebastián Mayor Javier Jiménez issued a noncommittal statement noting that governors can be impeached.