Women came by the hundreds to grieve and to rally at the bridge where the unconscious body of Keishla Rodríguez Ortiz was thrown into the water two days before. Her sister, Berenice, arrived wearing Keishla’s clothes. Encircled by women wrapped in Puerto Rican flags holding colorful protest signs, she dropped to her knees and wept.
Plastered to the railing on the bridge were rows of photos of murdered women with their names written underneath. The final spot was a blank white frame with the words “The next one could be me.”
That same day, May 1, Rodríguez Ortiz’s body had been discovered in a lagoon outside San Juan, tied to a concrete block, decomposing after two days in the water. Family first identified the body by the tattoo on her back, a diamond etched just below her neck. Her lover, lightweight Olympic boxer Félix Verdejo, is nicknamed “El Diamante.” Despite the relationship memorialized by the tattoo, Verdejo is married to another woman.
Verdejo was charged on May 2nd with kidnapping and killing Rodríguez, 27, sending the boxing world into a spiral of disbelief and self-examination as the reputation of one of Puerto Rico’s most prominent fighters collapsed. “This isn’t who we thought we knew,” Victor Bermúdez, a producer for Telemundo Sports, told VICE World News.
Verdejo, 27, was widely seen as one of Puerto Rico’s most promising young boxers with a record of 27 wins and 2 losses. Verdejo pleaded not guilty to the charges on May 11 and if convicted, he could face the death penalty.
“We’re all dumbfounded. You couldn’t see Félix Verdejo being this type of person,” Bermúdez said. “It’s not in his nature, but granted, we say that about someone who steps into the ring to fight and put on a violent performance... It’s just a switch, and at any time it could go off.”
The relationship between boxing and Puerto Rico’s long-standing epidemic of domestic violence last faced public scrutiny in 2012, when former Governor Luis Fortuño famously said, “Boxing nights are domestic violence nights in Puerto Rico.” The comment then was a reaction to data showing surges in domestic violence cases and calls to women’s shelters on nights when high-profile boxing matches were shown on TV.
Numerous professional boxers, from Puerto Rico and elsewhere, have been charged with domestic abuse, and many have been allowed back in the ring to fight for payouts of millions of dollars. “This is something that honestly needs to be spoken about more. It’s something that boxing has covered up for a long time, or just pushed aside,” Bermúdez told VICE World News.
Prominent Puerto Rican boxers, representing some of the most visible idols for young men, often make reference to a violence-first style of masculinity that can permeate Puerto Rican society. “Boxing to Puerto Rico is the sport. It’s what Puerto Ricans eat and breathe,” Bermúdez said.
The Twitter bio of Verdejo’s long-term coach, Ricky Márquez, reads “helping kids become real men.”
It is that association between boxing and masculinity that blurs the line between violence in the ring and violence in society, say women’s rights activists. “Obviously it’s a violent sport and the supporters are mostly men, and in valuing violence as a sport, you reproduce violent patterns and social gender roles,” Debora Hernández, an analyst for the Gender Equity Observatory in Puerto Rico, said.
But the soul-searching that Verdejo’s arrest prompted within the boxing community was not shared by everyone. Senator Rafael Bernabe, a member of the Puerto Rican legislature and the left-wing Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana party, criticized boxing on Twitter and received backlash from fans.
“Some fans, especially broadcast journalists on TV, are saying the worst thing is that Verdejo ruined his career, his future,” he told VICE World News. “But it doesn’t matter if that asshole ruined his career. I’ve been saying that we should be having a conversation, not that we should ban boxing immediately, but that we should have a debate about the cult of boxing and what it teaches young people.”
The murder comes on the heels of an escalation in femicides during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the governor declared a state of emergency over gender violence. In 2020, an estimated 60 women were murdered and in 2021 so far, 11 women have been killed, an average of roughly one woman every week. Activists say a startling number of these murders are premeditated, planned days or weeks in advance, implying a chilling lack of recognition of a woman’s humanity rather than a sudden burst of anger.
For several years, Puerto Rico has registered double the per capita rate of femicides than the rate in the mainland United States. Several days before Rodríguez Ortiz’s murder, another woman was killed , allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, who was accused of burning her body in an effort to conceal the evidence. The woman, Andrea Ruiz, had asked a judge twice to grant a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, to no avail.
Reeling from two murders in the span of a week, several domestic violence organizations sent a list of demands to the Puerto Rican legislature. The Senate moved quickly to act on one of the demands, passing a law to formally designate the difference between standard homicide and femicide, the murder of a woman simply for being a woman. Previously, there was no legal distinction. Activists say the law is a tiny step forward on a long road to reducing the femicide rate.
“This legislation passed in the Senate on Monday, but it passed after a strong debate. Probably, in a different moment, it would not have passed,” Senator Bernabe said. “One of the very few good things that has come out of this tragedy is that it has made more people aware of the gravity of the situation, and they will be more willing to support measures to try to solve the issue.”
Over the past week, celebrities, corporations and boxing organizations have stripped Verdejo’s image from their websites. A Bad Bunny music video featuring Verdejo was removed from the Internet. Whether this represents a change in how the boxing world views violence against women is a murkier question. Verdejo’s managerial organization, Top Rank, quietly removed Verdejo’s picture from its roster and released a statement in support of Rodríguez Ortiz’s family, but has not formally dropped Verdejo as a client.
According to the federal indictment, Verdejo paid an accomplice an unknown sum to help him kidnap and murder Rodríguez Ortiz.
Rodríguez Ortiz’s mother called Verdejo after she failed to show up for her job in a pet grooming parlor on April 30, but she later told reporters that he responded he had no idea where she was.
According to Rodríguez Ortiz’s family, she was newly pregnant with Verdejo’s child and he urged her to get an abortion. The family said that he told her that a baby born from an extramarital affair would tarnish his reputation as a champion boxer and a symbol of Puerto Rican pride.
On April 29, prosecutors allege, Verdejo drove Rodríguez Ortiz to a deserted location, punched her in the face, injected her with a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, bound her wrists and ankles, tied her feet to a concrete anchor, and threw her unconscious body off a bridge into the water below. He shot at her body twice with a handgun as she sank.
Then, as security camera footage displays, Verdejo drove away in a Dodge Durango, a gift from the auto company, one of his many corporate sponsors.