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Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images
The Juan Ponce de León statue in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The capital’s mayor criticized what he said was an ‘act of vandalism’. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

Spanish colonizer statue of Juan Ponce de León toppled in Puerto Rico

The statue of Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1493, was found dismantled before the king of Spain’s visit on Wednesday.

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Hours before King Felipe VI of Spain arrived in Puerto Rico on Wednesday to celebrate San Juan’s 500th founding anniversary, the statue of Juan Ponce de León was found toppled.

The island’s media outlets report that a group known as the Borikén Libertarian Forces took responsibility for the damage. 

Activists of Borikén Libertarian Forces said their motive to dismantle the statue was to send a message to non-Puerto Ricans looking to conduct business on the island.

"Faced with the... visit of the King of Spain, Felipe VI, to Puerto Rico and the escalation of 'gringo' invaders taking over our lands, we want to send a clear message: Neither kings nor 'gringo' invaders," a statement from the group said.

San Juan police commissioner Col. José Juan, who was on patrol, said he heard a loud noise that was believed to be an explosion at 4:30 a.m. in the San Jose Plaza. When officers had gone to check, they found Juan Ponce de León’s statue knocked off from its base.

Historically, Ponce de León settled in Puerto Rico along with Christopher Columbus in 1493 during the Spaniard expedition to the New World. His statue was erected on an Indigenous settlement after he ended protests of native Tainos, a subgroup of the Arawak Indians.

The statue stood near San Juan Bautista Cathedral with Ponce de León pointing towards Caparra, his first settlement he founded in 1508.

San Juan Mayor Miguel Romero told Telemundo Puerto Rico he plans to have the statue fully restored.

“Freedom of expression is protected, but what cannot be protected is vandalism. I believe vandalism is the most cowardly form of expression,” Romero said.

Governor Pedro Pierluisi said he views the 500th anniversary between Spain and Puerto Rico as a way to strengthen the two territories' relationship, and aid the island’s businesses.

"Spanish tourism has great potential for growth in Puerto Rico, particularly as a result of the new direct flights to Spain," said Pierluisi.

Island activists for two years have demanded the removal of statues and “symbols of oppression” by marching in protest. Puerto Rico’s police, however, say this is the first time a statue was toppled. 

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