Deadly Violence Against Women in Puerto Rico Is Surging During Lockdown

A kidnapping case continues to grip the island, where 49 women have been murdered so far this year and 20 have gone missing.
December 8, 2020, 3:11pm
protests against femicide in puerto rico
A woman shouts as people protest in Puerto Rico to demand Governor Wanda Vazquez declare a state of emergency in response to recent gender based femicides, assaults, and the disappearance of women in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 28, 2020. Photo by RICARDO ARDUENGO, AFP via Getty Images. 

Rosimar Rodríguez Gómez, aged 20, waited outside her aunt’s house in Toa Baja, a verdant suburb on the north side of Puerto Rico, expecting her ex-girlfriend to arrive. She wore her red Nike Air Jordans. 

Instead, a van pulled up and a man emerged. Security camera footage shows him shout at Rodríguez Gomez to get in the car, and then shove her in by force. Zaira Martínes, who watched in shock from the window as her cousin was thrust into the vehicle, called the police.

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It took the police four days to act on her abduction, which took place on September 17. When they did, they enlisted the FBI to help. Billboards sprouted up alongside highways featuring Rodríguez Gómez’s characteristically wide grin, magnified and grainy. The story overwhelmed Puerto Rican Twitter and local news broadcasts. Women’s organizations sprung to stimulate activism online, seeing this disappearance as part of a yearslong pattern, a pronounced rise in gender violence in moments of crisis on the island, shadowed by a mess of inattention and arbitrariness in responses from police and government agencies. 

“How can it be that they waited four days to mobilize people to look for her? This year with COVID, we’ve started to question the police above all else on the number of women missing. The numbers they have are not the same as ours.” said Debora Upegui Hernández, an analyst for Gender Equity Observatory, an organization that works to provide accurate counts of gender violence incidents on the island. 

The observatory claims 49 women have been murdered so far this year, and 20 have gone missing. In the first two months of quarantine for COVID-19, the observatory recorded an 83 percent increase in women murdered. Rodríguez Gómez, though the latest poster child of disappeared women on the island, presents a peculiar case of premeditated kidnapping. The vast majority of the women in the observatory ’s database were killed by intimate partners in spontaneous bursts of violence. 

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The spike in femicides is a continuation of a rise that began after Hurricane Maria devastated infrastructure on the island in 2017, taking over 3,000 lives, and leaving thousands without power, running water, or housing for months. In 2018, Puerto Rico registered more than one woman murdered per week, roughly double the per-capita rate in the United States for that year. 

“Loss of housing, loss of finances, loss of employment, these are highly correlated with rises in gender violence,” said Dr. Jennifer First, a professor at the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee who focuses on post-disaster contexts. “We’ve seen increases in the number but also in the severity of these events.” 

In the wake of natural disasters and now the pandemic, minor assaults against women have become more severe, and severe assaults have become homicides and premeditated murders. 

“When you have all of these compounding stressers, a colonialist model, the hurricanes, the constant earthquakes this year, and now COVID - which takes away people’s support systems—it all adds up. But you don’t have to raise your hand, you don’t have to kill.” said Dr. Roberta Hurtado, who teaches at State University of New York and has published reports on gender violence in Puerto Rico.

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Puerto Rico’s state of “long-term crisis” is further exacerbated by inconsistent support, disorganization, and apathy from the police and the government in femicide and abuse cases, according to Tania Rosario Méndez, the executive director of Taller Salud, a non-profit that assists victims of gender violence on the north side of the island. “When COVID came, we [gender violence organizations] were aware and we tried to make the government aware as well. What we have seen this year is that the social protection systems are too fragile in Puerto Rico… it’s an absolute collapse.” 

Rosario Méndez mentioned a 24-hour period when 911 hotlines were out of commission due to COVID-19 cases in a call center. “If there hadn’t been public outrage, it would have taken months to resolve. There is an absurd lack of competency. You can’t let protection systems collapse. If you have one job, that is the job of government.”

The United States Department of Justice conducted an investigation between 2005 and 2010 that found over a thousand reports of domestic violence had been filed against officers in the Puerto Rican state police, with few repercussions. The same investigation determined the police showed distinct neglect in response to cases of violence against women. A 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico described the police department as “steeped in a culture of unrestrained abuse and near-total impunity”. Though the department has new leadership, Rosario Méndez said, “Women don’t trust the police. Some municipalities have strong domestic violence and sexual assault units… It’s not the majority.”

After the extent of police negligence in Rodríguez Gómez’s case was unearthed, protests were organized in the capital city of San Juan for September 29. Rodríguez Gómez’s disappearance ignited a revival of the two-year campaign to pressure the island’s governor, Wanda Vasquéz, to declare a state of emergency in response to the rise in domestic violence and femicide. Just several hours before the thousands of hand-painted signs, torches, and candles assembled in the agreed-upon plaza, news broke that Rodríguez Gómez’s body had been found uncovered in a spot of grass 100 feet from the highway that bisects the island. 

At the scene, a mere ten minute drive from the spot where she was abducted, a bullet casing was found, as well as a pair of red Nike sneakers.

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In response to the protests this fall, the Puerto Rican congress opened an investigation into this year’s femicide spike and the police developed a new protocol specifically designed for disappearances of women, but Governor Vásquez declined to call a state of emergency, and advocacy organizations remain dissatisfied. 

“The case of Rosimar created a lot of consciousness in the population… It's sad that the government is not taking advantage of this situation, using their power to the maximum to respond to this need.” said Irma Lugo Nazario from Gender Equity Observatory. 

On October 2, what would have been her 21st birthday, as Rodríguez Gómez was lowered into the ground, heaped with roses, dozens flocked to her Facebook page with messages of mourning and cries for justice. Several of the loftiest Puerto Rican celebrities, including reggaetón giant Bad Bunny, posted the mantra “Puerto Rico is in mourning”, the same phrase printed onto the family’s matching tee shirts at the funeral. 

“There’s still an enormous emptiness.” Rodríguez Gómez’s aunt, Marangeli Gómez Ortíz, told VICE News. 

Five days later a Twitter account that records femicides and disappearances across the island reported a 22-year-old mother was followed and shot repeatedly the night before while driving home from the store.