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M received a protective order against her emotionally and physically abusive partner. But Puerto Rican police didn’t enforce it. Photos: Erika P. Rodriguez

In Puerto Rico, an Epidemic of Domestic Violence Hides in Plain Sight

After Hurricane Maria, the number of women killed by their partners doubled. Survivors say the government’s misguided response has put more lives in danger.

This feature was reported in partnership with Type Investigations, where the author is an Ida B. Wells Fellow. A Spanish-language version is available here.

Suliani Calderón Nieves. Her mother, Sonia, removed images of her daughter from her living space after Suliani’s death in 2018, and only brought out this photograph on request.

It can be hard for victims to get help in a “machista” place like Puerto Rico, where right-wing lawmakers and religious groups have outsized influence.

On March 15, Gov. Wanda Vázquez issued an islandwide lockdown and 9 p.m. curfew to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Within a month, the PRPD registered almost 10% fewer domestic violence complaints than during the same period in 2019. But officials believe the rate of cases could be increasing. “Our experience tells me that because of the situations at home and other reasons, the information about domestic violence victims is not reaching the police,” Lt. Aymeé Alvarado, who leads the PRPD’s domestic violence unit, told local newspaper El Nuevo Día. Nationally, intimate partner violence incidents and murders have increased during the pandemic. The lockdown ended in mid-June.

Sonia Nieves at her home in Bayamón. Nieves has become vocal about the Puerto Rican government’s failure to address domestic violence in after losing her oldest daughter in 2018.

Police are often unable to recognize the signs of intimate partner violence and regularly mishandle complaints.

The organization’s findings were supported by a wide-ranging federal civil rights lawsuit brought against the PRPD by the U.S. Department of Justice in December 2012 that accused the police of excessive use of force, unconstitutional searches, discriminatory practices, and failing to address cases of intimate partner and sexual violence. The suit was settled through a consent decree in July 2013, in which the government agreed to reform the department and overhaul many of its policies.

Johanna Pinette, associate attorney for the ACLU in Puerto Rico. In 2012, the ACLU published a report detailing how the Puerto Rico Police Department failed to protect victims of domestic violence and investigate related crimes.

“The law exists. But if the people meant to execute it are not capacitated, have no sensibility, and don’t see this issue as a priority, nothing will happen.”

Regardless, M was able to obtain a temporary protective order. After several hearings, a judge granted a permanent order that would last a year. But M soon learned the protective order did not guarantee her safety. A few months after leaving her abuser, M was blow-drying her hair when she looked out of the window and saw he was driving slowly by her house over and over again. Though she could not see inside, she knew the make and model of her ex’s car. “No one else in our town has that car,” she said. Panicking, M called 911.

After M, 23, called 911 on her abusive partner, the police claimed she didn’t mention the incident was related to domestic violence. Instead, it was mislabeled as a home dispute.
Zoan Davila is a lawyer and member of the Colectiva Feminista en Construccion, a feminist political project founded in 2014.

M told the officers her ex had violated the protective order over and over again — calling her using blocked numbers, texting her using temporary numbers. The officers told her nothing could be done.

Of the police officers who have been accused of intimate partner violence, Arce Pérez said there’s “zero tolerance.” Agents are disarmed immediately after a complaint is filed, and the cases are brought to a prosecutor.

Vilma Gonzalez is the executive director of the women’s rights collective Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer.

Witnessing Suliani’s murder distinguishes Lersy Boria from other government officials; she’s seen the consequences of intimate partner violence up close.

But Boria has also remained on the sidelines for some critical debates, her critics said. She stayed publicly silent about a law signed by Vázquez in December 2019 that allows for survivors of domestic violence to receive an expedited gun license if they have a protective order. Women’s rights advocates and victims’ services organizations say they were not asked for their input when the legislation was drafted and have opposed it since. They believe Boria should have too. “Arming women does not necessarily make them safer,” said González, from Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer. Research has found gun ownership rates are uniquely tied to domestic homicides in the U.S. Half of the women killed by their intimate partners are fatally shot, and these gun-related murders increased by 26% between 2010 and 2017. Owning a gun poses a challenge for victims who want to be housed in a shelter. “We have to now establish [new security] protocols on how to handle this if they come in,” said Rivera, from Red de Albergues. “These measures might be done in good faith, but they don’t work logistically.”

Award-winning Puerto Rican journalist. Senior Writer at New York Magazine’s The Cut. Formerly GEN, Refinery29, and more. Read my work: https://www.thecut.com/