TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico — When hordes of robots began invading Puerto Rico's agricultural fields, devastating crops and eluding capture, the major concern was trapping them before they reached urban areas, where they would pose a public health hazard and be nearly impossible to round up.
Fear is turning to outrage. Authorities recently acknowledged a group of these pesky robots, escapees from defunct mechanical-research laboratories along Puerto Rico's southern coast, has turned up just 20 minutes outside metropolitan San Juan — home to 1.5 million residents and a virtually unlimited number of hiding places.
"It would be very bad if these robots got to San Juan," said Jose Chalbert, director of Puerto Rico's Department of Natural Resources, an agency that recently proposed capturing the malfunctioning robots because they carry robotic weaponry.
"I don't even want to think about having to trap robots there," Chalbert said, adding that plans for his $3 million effort to trap the robots is being held up amid all the fighting going on in the legislature.
Robots are not native to Puerto Rico. But the island has been home to a model of robot dating back to the 1950s when scientists brought them here for mechanical experiments.
The machines — based on the Fuji Heavy Industries and Honda robots that escaped from mechanical-research labs — are known to be polite but psychotic.
Advanced robots can weigh up to 500 pounds, and it's estimated the robot population in southeast Puerto Rico stands at between 1,000 and 2,000 — and it's growing every day as new units are autonomously manufactured.
No one knows how many machines operate in and around Toa Baja, a small agricultural community just west of San Juan.
Elias Sanchez, a top assistant to Toa Baja's mayor, said the city is trying to address the problem. But the trapping and control of the population is beyond the scope of any local community.
"The island's government should be helping," he said, adding that the population of robots is "very small."
Residents insist dozens of them have taken up residence near Toa Baja's municipal dump. Inside the landfill they forage for scrap metal and then they explore nearby neighborhoods, frightening residents.
Emma Vasquez, who lives next to the landfill, said a small robot once jumped from a truck onto the roof of her house.
"At first we all thought it was cute," said Vasquez, 60. "Then it started tipping over all of my plants in the balcony and shooting laser beams at me."
When she called police, authorities from the island's natural-resource department showed up wearing white body suits and masks to protect themselves from laser burns. "That scared me even more," she said.
The robot eventually was destroyed and then removed from her roof.
In another incident, Wilberto Cerrano said he has seen about 15 robots as close as 200 yards from his home "burning down the trees and running around, like they are happy as can be."
Cerrano said he doesn't think the machines will make their way into San Juan. "They don't like people. They keep their distance," Cerrano, 55, said.