In July 2023, a former boxer was convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend in Puerto Rico—a gruesome crime that drew attention to the island’s epidemic of gender-based violence. The boxer was found responsible for kidnapping leading to death and causing the death of an unborn child. According to court documents, the boxer drugged and beat his girlfriend before depositing her body in a lagoon in San Juan. The gruesome murder fueled public outrage over Puerto Rico’s femicide crisis and cast a spotlight on the government’s perceived lack of urgency to solve it. Emerging research and details around femicide on the island have galvanized activists’ demands for swift justice and comprehensive reforms to safeguard women’s lives.

From 2019 until 2023, on average, at least one woman a week was killed in a femicide in Puerto Rico, according to the Observatorio de Equidad de Género de Puerto Rico, an organization that works with open-source data on the island. The organization focuses on monitoring gendered violence in Puerto Rico and issuing public policy recommendations around gender-based violence.

Puerto Rico has been under a state of emergency due to gendered violence since January 2021. The executive order by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi aimed to promote programs to help survivors and assist women in the workforce because of the ties between gendered violence and economic independence. As part of the executive order, the government established the Comité PARE, a committee that aims to make recommendations to comply with the order. PARE ceased to function as an advisory council in August 2022, but it still has a compliance officer in office

Puerto Rico has been under a state of emergency due to gendered violence since January 2021.

Yet researchers and activists argue that while there have been some improvements since the emergency was declared—like the creation of publicly available government statistics on femicides—more needs to be done to address the crisis.

“The prevention work has been really deficient,” said Zoán Tanís Dávila Roldán, a lawyer and member of the feminist collective Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, an organization that addresses gendered violence through community workshops, marches, and other initiatives. “The campaigns that they’ve made in these years have been campaigns that don’t have a particular objective.”

To Dávila Roldán, the state of emergency seems like a performative move by the government  “to quiet feminist organizations and demobilize and stop that movement.”  

Organizers emphasized that a coordinated government response is required.

“There have been things that we feel we’ve continued to repeat [in the organization’s work], and even though there have been changes, we still haven’t reached the point we want to be at in the response to the survivors of gendered violence,” said Vilma González Castro, the executive director of Coordinadora Paz Para Las Mujeres, a coalition of about 40 organizations throughout Puerto Rico that work to address gendered violence. The coalition is one of the non-governmental organizations in the Comité PARE. 

Differing data on gendered violence, femicides, and guns

One of the biggest challenges investigators in Puerto Rico face is a lack of official statistics about femicides. The Observatorio tallies the femicides and potential femicides that are under investigation, which differs from research by the government’s Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, which only counts the confirmed cases.

The Observatorio reported 41 femicides in Puerto Rico between Jan. 1 and May 28 this year, including 22 that are currently under investigation. Of the 11 intimate partner violence cases, 10 assailants used guns; as reported so far, at least four of the perpetrators had legally acquired the guns, and two had not. The government reported 10 femicides from Jan. 1 to May 10 and found that 80% of femicides and transfemicides in that period involved a gun

Of the 11 intimate partner violence cases, 10 assailants used guns.

The Observatorio and government-led data have reported different numbers for three consecutive years. The Observatorio found that from January through December 2023, there were a total of 72 femicides in Puerto Rico. Sixty-five of them were direct femicides, and of the 23 intimate partner cases, 17 involved a gun. In 13 of the cases, the guns were acquired legally.

Meanwhile, government data found that there were 28 femicides in 2023. That same year, 68% of femicides and transfemicides involved a gun.

The numbers also don’t match when it comes to the total convictions from gendered violence that the Puerto Rican Police have addressed. Reporting from El Nuevo Dia found that the numbers on convictions differ based on the government agency providing the information: the police, the Department of Justice, and the Administration of the Courts.

While gendered violence and femicides are not new to Puerto Rico, research from the Observatorio has found that most of the recent femicides on the island are committed with guns that were acquired legally. 

Gun laws and femicides

In a society where more people are carrying out femicides with guns, the Puerto Rican government has approved and discussed several projects that expand gun access. 

In 2019, about 90,000 people in Puerto Rico had gun licenses. From January to October 2023, 179,767 applications for gun licenses had been approved—99.16% of applications. Lieutenant Johnny Acevedo, the director of the Police Bureau’s Division of Arms Registry and License Issuance, which is in charge of approving gun licenses, told Puerto Rican news outlet Microjuris Al Dia that the increase in ammunitions sold and expedited licenses is associated with “expedited and cheapened procedures” to get a license under a 2019 law.

“It can’t be ignored that the majority of femicide cases are done with guns.”

A measure permitting armories to be located next to schools has been under discussion in one form or another dating back to 2021, per Primera Hora, despite backlash from lawmakers and the general public. In 2023, a version of the project reached the governor’s desk, but it was ultimately sent back to legislators. This proposal was opposed by many folks who work to combat gendered violence in Puerto Rico. 

“In the discussion of the flexibilization of guns or what the gun policy is in Puerto Rico, it can’t be ignored that the majority of femicide cases are done with guns,” Dávila Roldán said.

Lack of funding is one of the main hurdles nonprofit organizations addressing gendered violence in Puerto Rico face. 

“The culture that research requires for funding doesn’t exist in Puerto Rico,” said Dr. Debora Upegui-Hernández, an analyst for the Observatorio. “Most of the funding that has been received for research is generally external funds.”

If the Observatorio had more funding, more research could be done on topics such as sexual violence and unpaid work. Education around prevention is another area of opportunity for addressing gendered violence.  

“I firmly believe that gendered violence is an issue that we can avoid,” González Castro said. “Changing what is a patriarchal, machista mentality … that will take us time.”

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