A report by Syra Ortiz-Blanes for The Miami Herald.
Puerto Rico will prosecute a person under a new law that codifies gender-related killings as first-degree murder for the first time, part of the government’s battle against violence towards women.
The law, which Gov. Pedro Pierluisi signed a week ago, defines what constitutes feminicides and transfeminicides — the killing of women and of people whose gender identity is not the one assigned at birth. Luis Rivera Matos, who is accused of killing Damaris Ortiz Rosario, his 48-year-old spouse, will be the first person tried under the statute.
Rivera, 59, shot Ortiz after an argument in their home in the northern town of Rio Grande on Tuesday night, according to police reports. The couple had been together for two decades and married for 10 of those years, said Lieutenant Joaquín de la Cruz. He was a diesel mechanic and she worked at Walmart.
Five months ago, the couple had separated after facing infidelity issues. After the split, they continued to live under the same roof with Ortiz’s 24-year-old son.
“She had tried to throw him out of the house several times already and he did not want to leave,” said de la Cruz, who is the director of the Criminal Investigation Corps of the Fajardo police region.
Ortiz was found in the bedroom with several gunshot wounds, including several in the chest area. Rivera also threatened Ortiz’s adult son, pointing the weapon at him, police said. Neighbors called 911 after hearing the shots.
“When the agents arrive at the scene, they meet the man on the balcony of the house with the firearm,” de la Cruz added. Rivera “indicates that he had killed [Ortiz] and that he wanted the police to kill him.”
If convicted, Rivera could face 99 years in prison. Rivera, who is being held at a San Juan area jail, was also charged with obstruction of justice and aiming and shooting a firearm.
De la Cruz said that Ortiz had never gone to the police to report her husband for gender violence, but that her son said they often argued. There was also no restraining order against Rivera for domestic violence.
The deceased woman’s friends mourned her passing on social media. One colleague called her “a warrior and an example to follow.”
“There was no person who did not love you every time they went to the deli!” wrote Fabery Wilfredo, who also worked with Ortiz Rosario.
‘WHAT IS NOT NAMED IS NOT SEEN’
Puerto Rico has experienced an increase in the killings of women in recent years. The Observatory for Gender Equity, a coalition of academics and women’s rights groups considered a leading authority in tracking gender-based violence on the island, has recorded a total of 38 feminicides in 2021. Ortiz was the ninth woman killed by an intimate partner this year.
As one of his first acts in office, Pierluisi declared a state of emergency over gender-based violence in January. It was a measure local activists had demanded for years. The move was celebrated by women’s groups on the island and hailed among the first of its kind in Latin America and the Caribbean. The back-to-back, high profile murders of two women — Andrea Ruiz Costas and Keishla Rodriguez — in late spring fueled more outrage over the gender-violence crisis in Puerto Rico.
“The feminicides we had last year, each and every one of them, is regrettable,” Pierluisi said in an interview with the Miami Herald in March. “We should put a stop to it. Gender violence in general… should be stuff of the past.”
The aim of the executive order the governor said, is to dramatically reduce the number of women murdered in Puerto Rico. The recent criminal law is among the latest policies that the Pierluisi administration has pushed in the government’s renewed fight against gender violence.
It also outlines what constitutes these crimes, including the victim presenting signs of sexual violence, the death occurring during an act of abuse, the crime occurring in front of the victim’s children, and the victim’s body being dumped in a public place, among others.
“What is not named is not seen, and therefore is not addressed. Naming feminicides for what they are makes a difference, not only in how they are going to be processed, but in the information that is collected and how that information is recorded,” said Amarilis Pagán, executive director of Proyecto Matria, a local rights group with a focus on the economic advancement of women.
Pagán, who is also a member of Comité PARE, a governor’s advisory group that recommends gender-violence public policy, said the group is working on creating a specific protocol for feminicide and transfeminicide criminal investigations to ensure that they are in compliance with the law. She added she hopes that the new law will improve statistical collection of violence against women within the police department and other government offices.
A 2019 study from Proyecto Matria and Kilómetro Cero, a government watchdog group, found that Puerto Rican police annually underreported feminicides by as much as 27% compared to their own internal statistics on the number of feminicides on the island. Pierluisi has previously said he wants the government to address how it keeps statistics on gender violence.
“If the statistics are not real and they are not accurate, we will never be aware of the magnitude of the problem,” said Pagán, “Now, with this bill, we should be able to know exactly how many homicides we are talking about in Puerto Rico and assess and evaluate the problem.”
Pagán also said that the inclusion of transfeminicides in the legislation is vital in eradicating gender violence. At least 15 trans people have been killed in Puerto Rico since 2010, according to data collected by the Observatory; in 2020, close to 14% of all murders of transgender people in the United States recorded by Human Rights Watch took place in Puerto Rico.
“The approval of the law as such already recognizes that the state was not working adequately with the identification of transfeminicides,” she said. “It has a lot of meaning that feminicides and transgender people are also recognized in the same legislation, because both things have their origin in the same thing, in a machista vision.”
‘A GOOD START’
The Observatory for Gender Equity historically has used the terms “feminicide” and “transfeminicide” in its data collection and employs United Nations protocols that incorporate a broader range of crimes than those used by police.
Observatory analyst Debora Upegui-Hernández called the criminal law “a good start.” But she said the bill should be revised to ensure a broad application of the law in gender-related killings and different degrees of murder charges.
“The causes are still mostly limited to cases that are related to domestic violence. Although space is made for some cases, there are some additional situations, it does not cover all of them,” said Upegui-Hernández.
She also hopes that the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, a government agency, will not limit itself to recording cases that comply with the grounds for criminal charges, but use a broader definition based on sociological aspects and international protocols
Upegui-Hernández told the Miami Herald that despite the declaration of emergency on violence against women, Puerto Rico is on pace to match last year’s feminicide figures. In 2020, the island had 60 feminicides, according to Observatory data.
“The numbers are not so different,” said Upegui-Hernández, “They look too similar. It’s worrisome.”