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Violent deaths of 2 women in Puerto Rico stoke sorrow, outrage as femicides mount

Syra Ortiz-Blanes, The Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

Protesters demand action as violence persists

The recent femicides, which have received around-the-clock police attention and media coverage, are part of a wave of violence against women that advocates and experts say has been aggravated by the pandemic and recent natural disasters.

The island has registered 21 femicides this year, according to The Observatory for Gender Equity, a coalition of academics and women's rights groups considered a leading authority in tracking gender-based violence in Puerto Rico. The figure is on track to keep up with last year, when 60 women were killed. The Puerto Rican Police Department had recorded eight deaths of women and girls as of March 30; the department uses a separate methodology for tallying homicides and has been criticized for under-counting femicides.

Debora Upegui-Hernández, the observatory's analyst, told the Miami Herald that there have been more intimate homicides this year than there had been at this point last year. She partially attributes the high number of femicides in April — at seven, the highest monthly number of 2021 — to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in Puerto Rico, saying the pandemic has created a volatile situation for women.

Upegui-Hernández questioned why the pink alert had been activated for Rodríguez but not for two other women who had gone missing in March and whose cars were found.

"Why hadn't they activated it before?" she said of Rodríguez's case, the first time the alert was used.

On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people, mostly women, gathered at the Teodoro Moscoso bridge, blocking traffic and denouncing the government for not doing enough to curb violence against women. They waved purple flags — the color used by advocates to rally against gender-based violence — as they stood above the blue waters of the San José Lagoon, less than 24 hours after Rodríguez's body had been pulled from its shores.

An all-women drumming collective accompanied a crowd chanting, "If they touch one, they touch us all." The bridge's walls were plastered with the names and photos of women murdered in Puerto Rico.

Bereliz Nichole Rodríguez, Rodríguez's sibling, showed up dressed in her sister's work uniform, blue scrubs covered in a print of dog illustrations. She cried as she held up a pale purple poster of her smiling sister holding a black dog at work, framed by the words: "Her name is Keishla and we want her alive."

Judicial branch launches probe into missteps

The deaths of Ruiz and Rodríguez have reignited scrutiny over the government's response to a tide of violence against women that advocates say has been exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns.

Many expressed outrage at Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight and Management Board, which supervises the island's finances, after it preliminarily allocated just about $225,000 of the $7 million that Pierluisi had requested to finance the emergency declaration he signed in January.

 

The FOMB issued a statement saying media reports that claimed it had "reduced government funding to fight gender violence" were "inaccurate" and adding that the budget was not finalized and they were collaborating with the government to work on its fiscal plan.

Pierluisi countered the statement at a Monday press conference, saying that they had not allocated the money to finance the emergency order's steering committee, but that "they can still correct, they can still rectify" this budgeting decision.

The committee created after the January gender violence emergency declaration to offer policy recommendations released a statement detailing some of the work it has so far done, noting that 17 activities of the 37 outlined in the executive order's action plan were completed or in progress.

Puerto Rico Supreme Court Justice Maite Oronoz released a statement after Ruiz's death, saying she would launch an investigation into what went wrong.

"They kill us for being women. The very scene of Andrea's crime sends the message that the lifeless bodies of girls and women are inferior. These femicides are not isolated cases," she said. "They are the result of a society that normalizes violence against women through sexist attitudes."

In response to Ruiz's death, she called for a meeting with Puerto Rico's administrative judges, noting the "essential role" the justice system plays in addressing gender violence. The gender violence cases seen in Caguas, where Ruiz's legal proceedings were held, have been reassigned to a special domestic violence court in the same region.

At the press conference Monday, Pierluisi advocated for education about gender identity, and said the government had to improve in areas such as data collection.

"In the abominable case of Andrea Ruiz, it appears that our system failed her," he said, adding that he personally read the complaint Ruiz had presented. He said that Ruiz, flattened by the lack of support she found in the legal system, lost interest in pursuing her case.

María Conte, the director of the Institute of Forensic Sciences, said that their analysis concluded that both Rodríguez and Ruiz had died by homicide. Domingo Emanuelli Hernandéz, the island's secretary of justice, said that Verdejo could also face state charges for murder, in addition to the federal crimes of kidnapping and carjacking leading to Rodríguez's death and that of the unborn child.

In the meantime, the families of the two murdered women are asking for accountability and justice.

"They killed my daughter and my little grandchild," Keila Ortiz, Rodríguez's mother, told reporters in tears after Verdejo turned himself in to federal authorities.

(c)2021 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.