HipLatina partnered with National Geographic in advance of its new show Trafficked featuring the trailblazing female journalist Mariana van Zeller who goes inside the world’s deadliest black markets. In this series on HipLatina, we take a deep dive into femicide and the dangers of being a woman in Latin America. Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller premieres on December 2nd at 9/8c on National Geographic.
Outside a judicial center in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Deddie Almodovar Ojeda’s body lays face down on the concrete, baking under the Caribbean sun. A white sheet covers her motionless body. The staged crime scene captures the attention of those passing by on the busy street; some park their cars to take photos. Inside the courthouse, the trial of Juan Luis Cornier Torres, a local graffiti artist charged in the murder of Deddie’s late sister Valerie Ann Almodóvar Ojeda, was supposed to commence. Instead, a hearing is taking place to postpone the trial until January 21, 2021 — the fifth delay since the brutal murder of the young actress on December 17, 2018. Deddie’s artistic protest makes the crisis of gender violence in Puerto Rico visible and denounces what many consider a government unwilling to protect its women and girls and ill-equipped to bring their killers to justice.
In Puerto Rico, femicide occurs approximately once a week. Equivalent to an average of three women murdered per 100,000, this makes Puerto Rico among the regions with the highest femicide rates in the Americas. A 2019 report by feminist group Proyecto Matria and anti-police brutality organization Kilómetro Cero found that gender-based killings on the archipelago occurred at a greater rate than in the contiguous United States from 2014 to 2017. Now, amid natural, economic, political, and health crises, the problem is escalating.
In 2018, Valerie Ann was one of at least 63 women and girls killed. Since then, the number of women who have lost their lives in gender-based attacks has skyrocketed. Many experts attribute the staggering growth, particularly of intimate-partner violence, to back-to-back disasters that have devastated the archipelago. According to the World Health Organization, natural calamities often lead to personal and governmental chaos that fosters a rise in incidents of gender violence. In Puerto Rico, which has been hit by Hurricanes María and Irma, a series of earthquakes, and the Covid-19 pandemic, many survivors have been forced to stay indoors with abusers and lack the access to technology or communications needed to solicit help. Most recently, in October, 911 services were temporarily suspended following a coronavirus spread at call centers.
This year, at least 44 women, including five transgender women, were killed in Puerto Rico. Some, like 16-year-old Alondra Baez Garcia, were gunned down in drive-by shootings targeting their boyfriends. Others, like homeless 29-year-old trans woman Alexa Negrón Luciano, were victims of hate crimes. Most, however, were murdered by abusive partners or exes. On November 5, when Deddie returned home to San Juan from her demonstration in Ponce, she learned about another femicide: 43 miles away from the protest, 72-year-old Carmina Roldán González was killed by her husband in their home in San Lorenzo.
“I never wanted to be an activist,” Deddie, 26, says, adding that her sister’s murder awakened her to the crisis of femicide in Puerto Rico. “But now, I can’t live in peace knowing that I could help find a solution.”
Deddie’s younger sister’s body was found in a paint-splattered black plastic garbage bag off of a highway in Adjuntas, a rural mountainous town northwest of Ponce. Three days later, the 23-year-old’s corpse, unrecognizable due to stab wounds, was identified by DNA obtained through her teeth. That same day, officers revealed they discovered the artist’s vehicle parked outside of the home of Cornier Torres. Inside his house, authorities also found blood and the knife used to kill the young woman. Though charged with first-degree murder on January 10, 2019, Cornier Torres still denies killing her. Loreinne Bonet Torres and Carlos Pacheco Santiago were also charged for destroying and concealing evidence.
Nearly two years after Valerie Ann’s death, the trial of Cornier Torres is still in limbo. In Puerto Rico, delayed trials in gender violence cases are not rare occurrences; in fact, many cases involving violence against women do not end in convictions. “This is the first time I think I’ve felt anger, to be honest,” Deddie says. “Up until now, I’ve had a lot of patience and hope in our justice system.”
Deddie’s rage is felt by many Puerto Ricans. Women have been calling on the government to declare a state of emergency, which would allocate funds for government agencies to prioritize the issue. On October 26, outgoing Gov. Wanda Vázquez issued an executive order to fight against gender violence. In it, she addressed many of the demands activists have been calling for: prevention, effective care, proper management, and accountability. However, feminists remain skeptical about the implementation of the new protocols, especially as Puerto Rico prepares to usher in a new administration in January. A mass movement, born out of the struggle against gender violence, is ready to hold the government accountable while also continuing its fight to create systems that effectively address the matter, support survivors, and eradicate a culture of machismo.
A History of Resistance
The current movement against gender violence follows a long tradition of feminist activism in Puerto Rico. Through strategic planning and collaboration among women’s groups in the 1980s, the archipelago advanced ambitious and comprehensive laws that are considered models internationally in the fight against intimate-partner violence.
In 1988, famous basketball player Richie Pietri bludgeoned his wife to death by hitting her in the head with a hammer 88 times. Pietri, who pleaded temporary insanity, didn’t receive jail time for the brutal murder and was put on probation. Women’s rights groups, like the Organización Puertorriqueña de la Mujer Trabajadora (OPMT) and Taller Salud, were already fighting for the rights and wellbeing of Puerto Rican women. Following the trial, the groups were among a collective of organizations that formed the Coordinadora Paz Para la Mujer to lobby politicians and educate the public on a statute that would finally address domestic violence: Law 54. Knowing that the Pietri case had galvanized everyday women, Coordinadora Paz Para la Mujer worked to mobilize them, including the wives of male legislators slated to vote on the measure. On the day of the vote, many wives showed up at the Capitol building, their presence signaling to their husbands to vote for Law 54.
“We lobbied, we fought hard, and did everything we could to change laws and have a recognition that violence among partners was a crime,” says María Dolores Fernós, a leading women’s rights activist in Puerto Rico who co-founded both OPMT and the Coordinadora Paz Para la Mujer. “It’s a beautiful story. We are so proud.”
When Law 54 passed in August 1989, it ended impunity for domestic violence perpetrators. The legislation, which precedes the Violence Against Women Act in the U.S., criminalized intimate-partner violence, including physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. Even more, it rejected the notion that women cause or provoke violence. Throughout the years, amendments have been made to the law to address issues of exclusion. In 2013, the law was modified to include same-sex couples and immigrant women explicitly.
While Law 54 has been celebrated as one of the earliest and most advanced legal efforts globally to address domestic violence, it’s been hard to implement. Hampered by government agencies, including police officers, prosecutors, and judges, who have resisted the legal and cultural changes imposed by the law, Law 54 has remained toothless.
In June 2012, Puerto Rico’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a report on the systemic failure of the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) to prevent and address crimes of gender-based violence, including not educating survivors on their legal options, investigating domestic violence claims, or enforcing protective orders. Following the ACLU’s findings, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the PRPD for negligence in policing gender violence cases, among other violations. The suit was ultimately settled through a consent decree obliging the Puerto Rican government to reform the department.
“We had some progress in the first three years, but then we got stuck. And we’ve been stuck,” Johanna Pinette, an associate attorney at the ACLU Puerto Rico, says. As part of the police reform programs, Pinette sat in on training sessions that taught officers how to identify domestic violence cases and protocols to follow in such instances. In one meeting, a cop noted that women endure abuse because they want to. In another, an officer suggested that women make domestic violence claims to manipulate ex-partners into paying more for child support. These attitudes reflect another problem within the police force: the number of abusers who wear badges. According to a Type Investigations report, at least 449 domestic violence complaints were brought against police officers between 2015 and 2019. A little more than half of these allegations led to arrests, and only one of the officers went to trial and was convicted.
“It’s coming from people in power. It’s not just a random thing, like they say, ‘just rotten apples.’ It’s institutionalized discrimination, and that trickles down to domestic and gender violence,” Pinette says.
Fighting Government Structures that Uphold Gender Violence
On March 8, 2017, during the Paro Internacional de Mujeres, Zoán Dávila Roldán joined thousands of Puerto Rican women in the historic march that drew attention to gender inequality and violence. Dávila, a lawyer, stood among a sea of energetic women as a member of Comité de Acción Legal, a legal team observing police officers and representing protesters who were arrested. While walking up a ramp to Avenida Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the busiest expressways in San Juan, Dávila got a glimpse of the massive crowd that shut down the highway, and she began to weep. “I wanted to be there on the other side,” Dávila tells me. The 32-year-old is now a member of one of her generation’s most influential feminist organizations: Colectiva Feminista en Construcción.
Founded in 2014, La Cole, as the group is colloquially called, is a queer and Black-led anti-colonialism intersectional feminist collective that has a vision and mission to eradicate gender violence and the structures that produce and protect it. Under the slogan “Let’s build another life,” La Cole has sought to construct a different reality for Puerto Rico through multiple methods, including militant street actions. Two years ago, La Cole embarked on its Estado de Emergencia crusade. On November 23, 2018, the group organized a sit-in at La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan, that lasted three days. They demanded then-Gov. Rosselló declare a state of emergency to address the surge in gender violence following Hurricane María and meet with them to sign an executive order they drafted. Rosselló refused at the time, but he did convene with the collective in January 2019, after male celebrities Bad Bunny and Residente urged him to take a meeting with the women.
Rosselló told the press that his administration would look over the proposals and “support initiatives that will promote the cessation of gender violence on the island.” However, six months after the meeting, a Telegram group chat between Rosselló and members of his staff was leaked, and it revealed what La Cole suspected all along: he, too, was part of the problem. Among the messages, the men called female political opponents “putas,” or “whores,” joked about gunning down San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and targeted La Cole. In one exchange, one participant of the chat posted a photo of a group leader wearing a T-shirt that read: “Antipatriarchal. Feminist. Lesbian. Trans. Caribbean. Latin American.” The governor responded by mocking the woman: “That has to be some kind of record, no?”
“This is evidence that the state and our elected officials reproduce the patriarchy that we are denouncing. This is what they believe. This is how they feel. And this is why they didn’t issue a state of emergency. They don’t see the problem because they are the problem,” Dávila tells me.
Amid the 889-page chats, which led to historic mass protests that forced Rosselló to resign, the members of the government also took aim at the transgender community, making fun of a trans teen who had protested outside of La Fortaleza. According to Joanna Cifredo de Fellman, a Bayamón-based transgender rights activist, transphobic jokes dehumanize trans individuals and foster a culture where trans lives are threatened. When trans women are assaulted, they are often held responsible for their own deaths; if they survive, they are more likely to be treated as perpetrators than given the help they need. Instead, assistance comes from queer-run community groups. In October, after Nicole Pastrana was beaten and stabbed in a transphobic attack in Río Piedras, one such group, La Sombrilla Cuir, raised money on social media to help pay for the woman’s hospital expenses. But activists say they can’t solve a problem they didn’t start; they need a government that values trans lives, invests in preventative education, is equipped to handle their cases, and funds programs that support survivors.
“In a lot of programs, they say that the first step in recovery is identifying you have a problem. I think that leadership comes from the top and that we need a government that admits there’s a problem, declares a state of emergency, and takes this problem seriously,” Cifredo says.
Carmen Castelló spends about five-to-six hours a day perusing local and national news articles about femicides and disappearances. For the past decade, the Cupey-based former social worker has been tracking these cases through the Facebook page Seguimiento De Casos. She started the unpaid project in 2010 after a back injury made it impossible to commute to work. “I wanted to create an archive because there wasn’t one, and what I’ve seen is there are more cases where we don’t know the details, where we don’t know who killed these women, than there are cases where we have this information,” Castelló, 66, says.
Her work helped Kilómetro Cero and Proyecto Matria devise their searing report about femicides in Puerto Rico in 2019. They compared Castelló’s data with that of the Health Department’s Registry of Vital Statistics, deaths recorded by medical examiners, and found that the Police Bureau undercounted these murders by 11 to 27 percent each year between 2014 and 2018.
While Castelló keeps the public informed of ongoing gender violence cases on Facebook, Morovis-based lawyer Ema Marrero retains a daily log of femicides in Puerto Rico through a public spreadsheet she shares on the Twitter account Feminicidio PR. Last year, the 32-year-old was a co-host of a radio program on Univision affiliate WKAQ 580 that provided women’s perspectives and analyses on political issues. After a segment on gender violence, she realized official data wasn’t accurate and began keeping the public informed by sharing femicide tolls to listeners every Friday. Soon after, she co-created Feminicidio PR with her friend John Ledesma.
Recognizing that it was passionate civilians accurately tallying femicides and following gender violence cases, the Observatory of Gender Equity launched in February 2020 to formally monitor and analyze the situation and generate public policy recommendations to address intimate-partner violence, disappearances, human trafficking, and women killed in drug-related conflicts. As part of its efforts, the observatory has attempted to collaborate with government officials. According to lead analyst Débora Upegui-Hernández, government bodies have mostly been uncooperative, except for the judiciary. The data given to her from the police department about disappearances are often estimates that lack key information, like gender or the number of missing people who have been found. Meanwhile, the Women’s Advocate Office hasn’t provided her with any statistics since she began contacting them multiple times a month in May 2020.
“They haven’t paid attention in a systematic way. It’s like one [death] here, and one [missing person] there. These feel like just exceptions. But then when you put the numbers together, you see that there’s actually a pattern, and it’s a systemic problem,” Upegui-Hernández says.
One of the government’s less-discussed failures in tackling the problem of gender violence has been the cutting of funds to groups working directly with those caught in the crossfire: Puerto Rico’s women’s shelters. There are eight autonomous nonprofit shelters serving communities, some housing trans women and nonbinary individuals, throughout the archipelago. Vilmarie Rivera, president of the shelter coalition Red de Albergues de Violencia Doméstica de Puerto Rico, says the work of these safe houses helps “restore dignity and give hope to women” by providing them with housing, legal advocacy, counseling, social work, job placement, and more. But the cost of running these shelters is steep. According to Rivera, housing a mother and her three kids for a period of three months could cost $7,500. If a facility tends to 50 similar family units a year, this care alone amounts to $375,000. To stay afloat, many shelters depend on government funding. But over the years, this financial assistance has been slashed. In some cases, the Financial Oversight and Management Board, an unelected board imposed by the U.S. government tasked to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt, has cut budgets to agencies that fund women’s shelters.
“Funding was eliminated, and shelters now have $1 million less. The board needs to understand that the government does not have shelters; nonprofits administer all the shelters in Puerto Rico. If we are forced to close down, Puerto Rico will have a big problem,” says Rivera. In the last 10 years, Puerto Rico has lost four shelters.
Several of the directors of women’s shelters note bureaucratic retaliation as another barrier to funding. Working directly with women impacted by gender violence, shelters have criticized the government’s substandard response to the crisis and faced retribution for this disapproval. This has motivated some sanctuaries to stop receiving money from the government altogether. “Since 2016, we decided never to solicit funds from the Puerto Rican government,” Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, the director of Proyecto Matria, tells me. “… We’ve found that any time we were critical of them, they punished us, reducing funds or making unusual requests on how we handle the funds.” Facing similar bureaucratic antagonism, other shelters are also seeking ways to operate without government funding. For some, assistance from groups like The María Fund, which launched in the aftermath of Hurricane María to move resources into social justice groups without self-serving demands, has been helpful.
Resources have been particularly dire amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In March, Rivera reached out to government agencies for aid, including essential items, testing kits, and a request to open a temporary shelter for those who are Covid-19-positive; no one responded. Consequently, some shelters, including Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos, have created makeshift isolation centers for new arrivals and individuals who show signs of the virus. This has limited the number of rooms available to people fleeing violence. “We had to separate an entire floor for isolation. We used to be able to serve 13 families at the same time. Now I can only have eight,” the shelter’s executive director, Coraly León Morales, laments.
Transforming a Culture of Machismo
As multiple women’s rights groups, activists, and everyday Puerto Ricans fight state systems that protect and reproduce violence, the archipelago’s cultural workers are creating educational materials, media, and art aimed at rooting out machismo and envisioning a future free of violence.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Aliana Bigio Alcoba, a university student who founded and co-runs the gender equality project Con(Sentimiento), was often booked to lead lectures on machismo and the differences between healthy and toxic relationships at schools. “The talks are optional for students, but we always have a full house,” the 22-year-old tells me. Following her presentations, she fields comments from young people thanking her for taking the time to speak with them about issues they would otherwise not learn about. Like Bigio, Marielle De León, a trans rights activist and organizer with La Sombrilla Cuir, also regularly presents workshops at schools and universities on inclusive language and the diversity of gender identity and sexual orientations.
In Puerto Rico, public speakers have been tasked with covering topics that aren’t discussed in the classroom. For several years, movement leaders have called on government officials to establish gender-perspective courses in public schools to promote respectful relationships and gender equality. To provide this necessary education, activists have had to be creative. In addition to school workshops, both León and Bigio also work with youth through what the latter calls “accidental education,” or lessons taught to people while they scroll through social media. For example, La Sombrilla Cuir’s Instagram page is sprinkled with explainer infographics that provide a series of transfeminist lessons on What is Transphobia, Violence Against Women and Girls, and more. Similarly, Con(Sentimiento)’s Instagram account breaks down feminist topics, like gaslighting and emotional abuse. “This nontraditional form of education is a great way to help people start the process of unlearning and begin a process of political activism and eradicating gender violence,” Bigio says.
As activists supplement the absence of gender-perspective education in schools with social media lessons, emerging feminist news outlets, like TodasPR, and independent journalists keep the public informed of reports involving gender violence. Given the underrepresentation of women in many newsrooms, particularly in leadership positions, it’s not surprising that mainstream reporting on gender violence in Puerto Rico has been shoddy. In 2008, Primera Hora, a major news outlet, ran an article about domestic violence with the headline “Amores que matan,” or “Lovers Who Kill.” In 2020, some publications on the archipelago still refer to intimate-partner murders as “crimes of passion;” though it must be noted that this categorization, outmoded in other parts of the world, is still used by local police departments. More commonly, the press uses language that blames women for their deaths or misgenders and deadnames trans victims.
But for some journalists, taking aim at the government’s failures has made them targets of intimidation. For decades, Sandra Rodríguez Cotto has been a leading investigative journalist and radio host on the archipelago, uncovering, reporting, and critiquing government corruption and negligence. Following Hurricane María, she used her platform to discuss the plight of women, particularly those who were victims of intimate partner violence. As a result of her reporting, Rodríguez was harassed. First, her home was broken into. The perpetrators didn’t steal anything, but they left her office in shambles. For a year, she was bullied online by hundreds of fake Twitter accounts; some made racist and sexist memes about her, while others posted photos of her house. Rodríguez, a single mother, lived in fear for her family’s safety.
Despite it all, Rodríguez continued to report on government corruption and gender violence. On the morning of July 12, 2019, she was among the first journalists in Puerto Rico to publish damning chats between Gov. Rosselló and officials on her blog, En Blanco Y Negro. Her reporting revealed misogynistic conversations among government officials tasked with resolving gender violence, a problem she says culprits aren’t equipped to fix. “How can you deal with violence against women when you are being violent against women, minorities, and the vulnerable,” she says. After the leaks, many participants of the chat resigned. The physical and online harassment, she says, also stopped.
Rodríguez’s reporting sparked one of the biggest mass movements in Puerto Rico’s history: the summer uprising of 2019. Amid the shouts and cries of hundreds of thousands of protesters, six women banged their panderetas and sang powerful refrains condemning political violence. The all-women Puerto Rican feminist group, Plena Combativa, are known for making protest music about the plight of women: “Libre y peligrosa/Libre y peligrosa soy yo/Libre y peligrosa pa’ que no me quieres aquí.” This song, Libre y Peligrosa, has become a rallying cry in demonstrations against gender-based violence. “I think it resonates with this collective rage we all feel to still have to live these situations in 2020,” the group’s director, Adriana Santoni, says. The lyrics speak to the peril women face for daring to live freely, and the musical style, plena, is rooted in a history of collective resistance in Puerto Rico. In the fight to transform culture in Puerto Rico, art has always been central – and so it is in the struggle against gender violence.
After Rosabel Rodríguez Díaz, a 35-year-old IT specialist, was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend outside a Guaynabo shopping center, Puerto Rican singer iLe was horrified. In that moment, femicides felt like a regular occurrence, which she feared could lead others to mistakenly believe gender violence is normal. That’s what scares the Grammy Award-winning artist the most: indifference to a horror that’s become normalized. Understanding art’s ability to assist people in making sense of difficult realities, iLe sat down and wrote Temes, a bolero that examines society’s ingrained patterns of machismo and violence. “It’s important to talk about these things even though they seem hard to talk about. I think if we don’t, it becomes worse. I try to use music to help us have a dialogue about it,” iLe tells me.
In the song’s music video, the singer portrays a sexual assault survivor picking herself up from the ground after an attack. The lyrics, like that of Libre y Peligrosa, declare that the patriarchy, and the men who uphold it, fear women. Meanwhile, the chilling visuals of iLe unwrapping a cord tied around her hands and neck with her mouth while her undergarment sits at her knees is an uncomfortable reminder that gender violence is far from normal.
Creative expression can also foster healing and wellbeing. In Vega Baja, illustrator Elizabeth Barreto created a portrait series on femicide victims that has been curative for the families of slain women. In 2019, the Museo de las Américas in San Juan commissioned Barreto to produce an illustrative series of 12 women who had been killed that year in honor of Día de Muertos. In the portraits, the women are portrayed joyously with florals blooming around their beaming faces. For Barreto, it’s important to restore humanity to women who have become statistics in a society desensitized to femicide. “The headline always says, ‘another woman assassinated,’ but it’s not just ‘another woman.’ These women had names, lives, dreams, aspirations. I try to give them back their dignity,” the 33-year-old tells me. After the series ran, the artist received numerous messages from relatives and friends of the women in her portraits; the pieces helped them begin their healing process.
But Barreto believes art plays another powerful role: it allows people to imagine another reality. “Art heals, art teaches, art empathizes, but I think the most important role artists play in this movement is creating a vision for the future without a colonial system, without machismo, without gender violence, without racism, and without homophobia,” she says.
Valerie Ann, the thespian murdered in Ponce two years ago, similarly shared her vision for Puerto Rico through art: On December 7, just 10 days before she was killed, she posted an illustration on Facebook of three women holding each other empathetically. Around them were these words: “Nos queremos vivas, libres y sin miedo. Ni una menos.” Valerie Ann’s Puerto Rican sisters are fighting for the dream she did not live to see; a world where women are alive, free, and can live without fear.