Carmen Castelló used to use the term “seguimiento de casos,” or case tracking, when she worked as a social worker managing client caseloads. Now it’s the name of the Facebook page she uses to track cases of murdered and disappeared women in Puerto Rico, information that became key to building the first-ever database of femicides on the island.
Castelló, 65, spent her career working to support vulnerable Puerto Ricans, providing services to pregnant adolescents, people with mental health issues, and survivors of childhood sexual abuse. When she retired early in 2009, due to a back injury that made her commute impossible, she found herself looking for a way to keep working. Her colleagues working on issues of violence against women had long struggled with a lack of data, so Castelló began monitoring the news and keeping a running count of women reported dead or missing.
From her home in Río Piedras, she posts updates when a person is found or a case advances — but often the cases don’t advance. Police tell the families that they’ll be in touch, but no update ever comes. “These families don’t have peace,” Castelló said. As for the police, “They don’t care.”
This week, the anti-police brutality organization Kilómetro Cero and the feminist organization Proyecto Matria released a report on femicides in Puerto Rico, titled the “Persistence of Indolence,” that used Castelló’s work as its starting point. Comparing the retired social worker’s data with the Health Department’s Registry of Vital Statistics — a database of deaths recorded by the Institute of Forensic Sciences’ medical examiners — the organizations discovered dozens of murdered women missing from state records. Between 2014 and 2018, Puerto Rico’s Police Bureau undercounted murders of women by 11 to 27 percent each year, the report found, while the forensic sciences office misclassified numerous homicides and failed to record several others.
“The issues with counting the data correctly and doing that consistently over the years — what it reveals is lack of empathy.”
In total, the researchers counted 266 femicides in Puerto Rico during the five-year period, or one every seven days. Women without a high school education were five times more likely to be murdered. Fifty-eight percent of the women were killed using firearms, and a large proportion were murdered in their homes.
The Puerto Rico Police Bureau and the Institute of Forensic Sciences declined to comment on the report’s findings.
The gaps in the state’s data serve as confirmation for the families of victims, as well as human rights advocates who have long argued that the island’s police department is failing to seriously investigate the violent deaths of women. The report is also likely to fuel Puerto Rico’s women’s rights movement, which has demanded that the government issue a declaration of emergency regarding gender-based violence in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Indeed, the researchers confirmed a spike in femicides committed by intimate partners in the year following the storms.
“Indolencia refers to laziness or lack of empathy,” said Luis Áviles, the report’s lead researcher. “The issues with counting the data correctly and doing that consistently over the years — what it reveals is lack of empathy at many levels.”
Murder Misclassified, Motive Unknown
The Puerto Rican police are notorious for mishandling reports of intimate partner abuse and for high rates of domestic violence within their own ranks. The U.S. Justice Department found that from 2005 to 2010, the police department received 1,459 complaints alleging domestic violence carried out by its officers. At least 98 officers were arrested multiple times on domestic violence charges between 2007 and 2010.
The police department’s deficient data came as no surprise to Mari Mari Narváez, founder of Kilómetro Cero. Narváez started the organization in part to unearth basic records about how many civilians had been killed by cops and how often police used violence in their everyday work. The data she’s managed to obtain — often after a lengthy back-and-forth with officials and, in one case, a legal fight — has almost always included obvious holes and missing cases.
With regard to femicide, the best thing Narváez could get her hands on from police was aggregate annual data describing murders and motives, which revealed nothing about the identity of the victims or the nature of their murders. Luckily, Kilómetro Cero’s lawsuit to obtain use of force data turned up the Registry of Vital Statistics, which included enough demographic information to match cases with those Castelló had tracked.
To guide their work, the researchers looked to the European Institute for Gender Equality, which defines femicide as the murder of a woman at the hands of an intimate partner, or a woman’s death that is the result of practices harmful to women, such as trafficking.
But for the purpose of developing statistics for the report, given the low quality of data, they counted as femicides the deaths of women that the forensic sciences office and the police department classified as homicide. Áviles acknowledges that the approach is imperfect. It leaves out women who commit suicide under the stress of an abusive partner, for example. It also leaves open the possibility that some homicides made it into the report that don’t fit the gender equality institute’s definition. With news reports collected by Castelló, however, the research team was able to adhere more closely to the institute’s definition. “Where we have information from the press,” Áviles said, the homicides are “clearly femicides.”
Neither the police data nor the Registry of Vital Statistics included entries for trans people. Luis Emmanuel Rodríguez Reyes, another researcher who worked on the report, told The Intercept that they did not run into news reports of trans women as they corroborated Castelló’s database. He said it deserves further investigation, especially since trans women may have been misgendered in news reports.
Between 2014 and 2018, 48 women identified by the researchers as victims of femicide were missing from the police data set, while 10 were missing from the forensic sciences registry. In cases absent from the registry that had been reported in the press as unidentified bodies, the researchers searched the registry’s named victims as well as Jane Does using details like dates and approximate age of the victims but could find no matches.
The new report places Puerto Rico’s femicide rate as the sixth worst in the Americas, behind Jamaica, Belize, Granada, Peru, and the Dominican Republic.
In other cases, women’s murders were misclassified. For example, by the police department’s own account, obtained by Kilómetro Cero, police officer Francés Pagan Resto was shot in the head by the father of her child, another officer named Jonathan Vargas Semidey, who then shot and killed himself. Yet a medical examiner classified Pagan Resto’s death as a suicide.
As for the police data, the department listed the motive as “unknown” in more than half of the homicides of women it tallied each year. In 2017, 31 of 34 homicides were categorized as having an “unknown” motive. Based on information collected from news reports, Kilómetro Cero researchers were able to determine that at least 75 murders of women involved an intimate partner. The police department data, however, only listed “domestic violence” as a motive in 59 cases.
Overall, Áviles considers the report’s tally of femicides to be conservative. Indeed, although the femicide rate calculated by his team is high by international standards — three femicides for every 100,000 women — it diverges from a widely cited statistic from a 2012 American Civil Liberties Union report that said Puerto Rico had the highest per capita rate of women over 14 killed by their partners. The new report places Puerto Rico’s femicide rate as the sixth worst in the Americas, behind Jamaica, Belize, Granada, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. While the researchers found that it was higher than the U.S. as a whole, when compared to the 50 states and Washington, D.C., the island had the 13th highest rate of femicide, tied with Tennessee.
To Áviles, the goal in releasing more accurate data is not simply to push politicians. “What really changes history, what really changes policymaking is not to provide more scientific data so legislators can be more enlightened,” he said. “Data helps people in promoting indignation and mobilizing people, and that is what really changes the situation.”
Data Irregularities After the Hurricane
In the aftermath of Irma and Maria, storms fueled by the climate crisis, many victims of intimate partner violence were left without support during a period of extreme stress. Emergency help lines were down, three of the island’s eight domestic violence shelters closed, and people were stranded without cellphone service or vehicles. Even when women were able to reach the police, in some cases officers refused to take reports; abuse survivors were reportedly told that they were busy attending to the emergency at hand.
In response to an apparent increase in violence against women in the wake of the storm, activists with the feminist collective Colectiva Feminista en Construcción camped outside the governor’s mansion, known as the Fortaleza, demanding that then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló declare a state of emergency. Taped to the police barricades were the names of women killed by spouses, exes, and romantic partners. Police responded as they often do to protests on the island: with batons and pepper spray.
If the number was correct, it would mean that journalists and police had overlooked well over 100 killings.
The femicide researchers found more irregularities in the homicide data after Maria than in any other period in the report. The Registry of Vital Statistics listed “type of death” as homicide for 168 women, a number so above the average that Áviles wondered if it was an error. If the number was correct, it would mean that both journalists and the police department had overlooked well over 100 killings in 2018. Furthermore, almost all of the murders reported in the press were misidentified in the registry. Forty-one of those murders designated “type of death” as suicide, yet simultaneously had a “cause of death” that indicated homicide.
Given the state of the data, and the fact that the forensic sciences office had been criticized for irregularities in its record-keeping even before the storm, the researchers decided that the 2018 number could not be trusted as valid. The anomalous data also came at a moment when the government was facing heat for its mismanagement of Maria and undercount of hurricane-related deaths. The forensic sciences agency had attributed only 64 deaths to the hurricane — a number the government was eventually forced to raise to 2,975, based on data from George Washington University researchers (a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the death toll to be 4,645).
“I don’t know the reasons, but the consequence plays in favor of the government,” Áviles said, pointing out that the registry’s number would shift blame for a portion of the deaths to something other than the storm.
Instead, Áviles’s team looked to past years for a median number of cases counted by the medical examiners but uncounted by the press. That number, added to the figure provided by Castelló, became the femicide total for 2018. In the researchers’ view, to be conservative would better serve the public than to be accused of overcounting.
But even using their conservative calculation, Kilómetro Cero and Proyecto Matria found that in the two six-month periods following Hurricane Maria, more femicides were committed than in any other six-month period they studied: Nine women were murdered in the six months after the storm, and 13 more in the second half of the year.
State of Emergency
In the past, Castelló used to wake up in the morning and turn on the news right away. She’d spend hours each day absorbed in violent deaths and painful disappearances. Eventually, she had what she described as a nervous breakdown. “I had to make some changes,” she said.
Now she eats breakfast before sitting down at her computer. Sometimes, when the stress is too much, she turns on salsa music. “I dance,” she said. “This relieves me a ton.”
Another thing that gave her relief: the protests this summer that led to Rosselló’s resignation. They were sparked by a series of Telegram messages exchanged between the governor and his closest advisers, all men. In one of the chats, Rosselló made fun of Colectiva Feminista en Construcción. In another, he suggested that former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was a “whore” who should be beaten. The item that hit Castelló the hardest was a joke by Puerto Rico’s chief fiscal officer suggesting they find a cadaver to feed to their critics — a reference to the bodies that had piled up in the morgues after Maria.
Feminist groups became key organizers during the two weeks of protest, continuing to demand a state of emergency in response to gender-based violence. “I thought, wow, my people are waking up,” Castelló recalled.
Rosselló’s replacement as governor, former secretary of state Wanda Vázquez, has long framed herself as an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, as former head of the island’s Office for Women’s Rights. Yet she alienated a number of advocates during her time in the role, and some accused her of cutting funds to women’s rights organizations in retaliation for criticism. On September 4, Vázquez declared a state of national alert regarding gender-based violence. Compared to the collective’s proposed executive order, however, the plan is short on specifics, and advocates like Castelló have little confidence it will result in any substantive change.
The report from Kilómetro Cero and Proyecto Matria perhaps provides a starting point for the government to respond to the crisis of gender-based violence. It calls for the creation of a femicide observatory that would receive government funding to continue to collect data, and for training forensic examiners to better document femicides and more accurately classify causes of death.
Police should report monthly on the number of femicides resolved, unresolved, and pending investigation, according to the recommendations, and eliminate the “crime of passion” category, which feminist organizations have long argued is a means to obscure and excuse intimate partner violence. The government should also seize firearms from anyone accused of gender violence, including police officers. Finally, the report calls for school programs that emphasize gender equity and demands a reduction in expulsions, given the link between violence and low levels of education.
“One of the goals for me isn’t just to tell a story about this,” Castelló said, “but to obligate and to put pressure on the government agencies to investigate.”