Inside Puerto Rico's gender violence epidemic and rising femicides including Andrea Ruiz Costas, Keishla Rodriguez
Puerto Rico is currently facing a crisis. And it is not exactly the coronavirus pandemic. Early this year on January 24, 2021, it was reported that the newly sworn-in Gov Pedro Pierluisi signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency that would allocate resources to deal with gender violence on the island. For far too long, for far too many years, activists had championed for the government to take serious action as the list of femicides grew longer.
This time, there are two women at the center of this crisis. Early this month on May 3, 2021, hundreds of protesters were reported to have taken to the streets to protest the murders of 27-year-old Keishla Rodríguez and 35-year-old Andrea Ruiz. Ruiz’s body was found on April 30, covered in burns. Barely a few days later, on May 1, 2021, the dead body of a pregnant Rodríguez was discovered floating in the San José Lagoon.
Gender violence has been on the rise on the island. And thus comes the state of emergency, which is reportedly to be in effect until June 30, 2022, as per the latest reports. The already dire situation was only aggravated by the two recent very brutal deaths of Ruiz and Rodríguez - cases made particularly notorious because they were both attacked by the men closest to them. Let's dive deep into the state of emergency that has engulfed Puerto Rico and its people who are seething with anger.
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State of emergency 2021
On January 24, 2021, Pierluisi announced an executive order aimed at preventing and protecting against gender-based violence through a number of programs.
"Gender violence is a social evil, based on ignorance and attitudes that cannot have space or tolerance in the Puerto Rico that we aspire to," Pierluisi said in a statement. "For too long vulnerable victims have suffered the consequences of systematic machismo, inequity, discrimination, lack of education, lack of guidance and above all lack of action."
Pierluisi was actually the first governor to take the matter seriously. As it turns out, activists and advocacy organizations had been working long and hard reportedly for almost three years to urge the government to take action. The situation particularly worsened after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. But it had long been brushed aside. Puerto Rico's two most recent governors, Ricardo Rossello and Wanda Vazquez were reportedly criticized by feminist groups for refraining to issue any declaration.
Amarilis Pagan from Proyecto Matria reportedly told NPR that it was the "first time within the past decade in which a governor admits that violence against women is different from other violence".
According to the local group Gender Equality Observer, at least 60 direct and indirect femicides were reported in Puerto Rico in 2020. Puerto Rico's police also reported that at least 5,517 women were victims of domestic violence last year. To further put that into perspective, from January 2020 to August 2020, the police bureau received 109 reports of missing women, of which 103 have been located to date, and 107 missing children between the ages of 13 and 17, of which 97 have been located. Meanwhile, of the 21 women reported missing this year, nine are yet to be located, as per the San Juan Daily Star.
A grave situation
The list of victims, unfortunately, is harrowing. Ruiz and Rodríguez are the most recent cases. Nilda Alvarez, Alexa Negron, Rosimar Rodriguez (found dumped on the side of the road, dead at 17), Samuel Edmund Damián Valentín (a transgender man shot to death), and Angie Noemí González Santos among others - all are indicative of a disturbing pattern of violence against women in Puerto Rico. This year alone, 11 women have reportedly been murdered.
Andrea Reyes who was reportedly protesting the death of Ruiz and Rodríguez on May 2 in Puerto Rico, spoke about the terrifying situation. "The last few days have been really difficult. This has hit really close to home, the situation with the latest disappearances and murders of women. I think it’s important that we’re heard. That’s why we’re here. The greater our voice, the louder and further we’ll be heard. It’s important."
Keishla Rodríguez Ortiz and Andrea Ruiz Costas
There are two deaths that are closely tied to the state of emergency - Keishla Rodríguez Ortiz and Andrea Ruiz Costas.
In both cases, the women were killed by the men closest to them. Andrea, 35, was killed by her former partner Miguel Ángel Ocasio Santiago, who later confessed to the cops. She had sought a protection order against her ex-partner.
Her body was reportedly found half-naked, face down and had a blow to the face, and partially burned, a month after she sought the protection order. They had dated for only eight months.
One-month pregnant Keishla Rodríguez Ortiz was killed by her married boyfriend, boxer Felix Verdejo. When she got in the car, Verdejo allegedly punched Rodriguez in the face, fracturing her jaw, and proceeded to inject her with a sedative, the arrest affidavit said. With the help of a witness, he then allegedly tied her arms and feet with wire before driving to a nearby bridge, tying a brick to her and throwing her off.
Verdejo then went on to plead not guilty for one count of carjacking resulting in death, one count of kidnapping resulting in death, one count of killing an unborn child and a count of using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, during his appearance in federal court on May 11 morning.
Even his alleged accomplice Luis Antonio Cadiz Martinez pleaded not guilty on the same day. He was charged with one count of carjacking resulting in death, one count of kidnapping resulting in death and one count of killing an unborn child.
Though the death penalty is illegal in Puerto Rico, both men could face the federal death penalty. Both are held with no bail.
Puerto Rico is going through major money problems. The island's bankruptcy began in 2016 and it has over $100 billion in debt and pension obligations.
Of the $7 million requested by the governor for funds, Financial Oversight Management Board initially approved just $200,000. But on May 5, 2021, the FOMB reportedly approved the $7 million request.
The money is going to help reinforce the work of the specialized committee called PARE, an acronym in Spanish that means Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education of Gender Violence.