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Puerto Rico's new tipping point: Horrific femicides reignite fight against gender violence

The killings of Keishla Rodriguez and Andrea Ruiz have spurred intensified protests to hold accountable a system that failed to protect women, many of whom had sought help.
A woman holds a sign that reads "I Want My Sisters Alive" during a demonstration at the governor's mansion in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 3.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

Andrea Ruiz did what she could to protect herself from an ex-boyfriend who was constantly following her, harassing and even threatening to publish intimate photos of her on social media.

The terrified 35-year-old woman appeared in court virtually a month and a half ago to file a complaint against Miguel Ocasio, 40, under Puerto Rico’s domestic violence intervention and prevention law.

Ruiz pleaded for Ocasio’s arrest after she was unable to get the court to issue a protection order against the man, whom she had dated for eight months. In a leaked audio of the court appearance, she can be heard describing the pattern of emotional abuse and persecution she endured at his hands before and after they were dating. But the judge said she found “no cause” to arrest Ocasio, who a month later would go on to kill Ruiz.

Her burned body was found on the side of a road in the town of Cayey on April 28, so disfigured that Puerto Rico's Institute of Forensic Science had to use dental records for identification. The agency determined her death was a homicide. Ocasio confessed to the crime shortly after the body was found. Police said he mortally assaulted Ruiz by using physical force and a knife. Ocasio remains in prison on charges of first-degree murder and destruction of evidence, among others.

As outraged Puerto Ricans demanded accountability from the system that failed to protect Ruiz, another horrific femicide stunned the U.S. territory.

Keishla Marlen Rodriguez Ortiz.
Keishla Marlen Rodriguez Ortiz.Puerto Rico Police

The body of Keishla Rodríguez, 27, was found floating on the San José Lagoon near the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge in San Juan two days after her family reported her missing April 29.

According to a criminal complaint, Rodríguez was killed after she told Puerto Rican boxer Félix Verdejo, whom she had known for most of her life, "that she was pregnant with his child based on a pregnancy test." Authorities allege that Verdejo punched her and injected her with "a syringe filled with substances purchased from a drug point." He and an accomplice then tied her up with wire and bound her to a cinder block, later throwing her over the bridge into the water, according to the complaint. Verdejo then shot at Rodríguez with a pistol from the bridge above, the complaint said.

While Verdejo turned himself in to the authorities shortly after Rodríguez's body was found, he pleaded not guilty to federal charges of carjacking and kidnapping resulting in death, killing an unborn child and using a firearm during a violent crime. Luis Antonio Cádiz Martínez, a second person indicted in Rodríguez's killing, also pleaded not guilty to similar charges. They are both being held without bail until their respective trials.

The killings of Rodríguez and Ruiz have prompted protests and reignited calls urging Puerto Rican officials to reform a system that has done the bare minimum to address gender violence.

A deadly record amid calls for more funding, action

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi signed an executive order shortly after taking office in January, declaring a state of emergency due to an increase in cases of gender violence on the island. At least 60 women were killed last year, a 62 percent increase in femicides compared to the previous year, according to the civil rights coalition Observatorio de Equidad de Género.

The move was preceded by months of protests and constant demands from feminist activists, as well as organizations that work with survivors of gender-based violence. The state of emergency was crucial to unlocking much-needed funding and resources to address the crisis.

But the crisis reached a bleak turning point last month. A record number of seven femicides were reported in April, making it the deadliest month for women so far this year. The Observatorio de Equidad de Género estimates that femicides have claimed the lives of at least 21 women in Puerto Rico since the beginning of the year.

“We still have so much left to do,” Irma Lugo, coordinator of the Observatorio de Equidad de Género, told NBC News in Spanish.

Following the state of emergency, Pierluisi requested $7 million to address the gender violence crisis in Puerto Rico. But the federal government-appointed fiscal board, which oversees Puerto Rico’s finances while the island works to get out from largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, only approved the use of $200,000 to resolve the crisis.

Later, the board backtracked from its decision and approved the full amount requested.

“It was terrible because it showed once again that this is not a priority for our politicians,” Lugo said. “If we would’ve not complained and raised our voices, that would have never changed.”

Lugo said she has seen an increase in people seeking services and guidance on how to deal with cases of gender-based violence following the killings of Ruiz and Rodríguez, as well as greater support for gender-sensitive education.

She hopes that some of the funding can go to meeting these needs, as well as training for police officers who deal with victims while responding to incidents of gender violence.

Calls to resolve flaws in preventing gender-based violence

Since 2019, Puerto Rico has been experiencing a rise in gender-based killings. Against this background, former Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed a law to create a “pink alert,” which authorizes the deployment of certain law enforcement resources to find abducted or disappeared women.

April 29 marked the first time that Puerto Rican authorities activated the alert in order to find Rodríguez. But despite it, the pregnant woman was never found alive.

“We also had two additional cases of women who disappeared in March,” Lugo said. “It raises questions about what’s taken into consideration when deciding when to issue this alert.”

Rodríguez was buried last week during an emotional ceremony following a two-day funeral that saw hundreds of Puerto Ricans say one last goodbye.

"Let her be the last," Keila Ortiz, her mother, said during her funeral. "The abuse against women has to stop."

Image: Keishla Rodriguez's funeral procession in San Juan
A horse-drawn carriage transports the remains of Keishla Rodriguez to the Guaynabo cemetery in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 8.Carlos Giusti / AP

"Not one more. It ended on April 29," José Antonio Rodríguez, her father, said alluding to chants that have been heard in protests calling for an end to femicides.

Puerto Ricans also got a glimpse of the anguish Ruiz faced after the courts denied her the protection she sought. A friend of hers shared with NBC News' sister station Telemundo Puerto Rico a series of voice messages she says she received from Ruiz in which the woman opens up about the harassment she was facing and the frustrating legal process she endured in an attempt to protect herself.

“I'm really disappointed,” Ruiz is heard saying on the audio message in Spanish, seemingly discouraged. “Let it be what God wants, let this serve me as a lesson.”

Courts in Puerto Rico have denied 68 percent of all protection orders requested over that last nine months, according to data from the Courts Administration Office. A total of 7,019 protection orders have been requested for far this fiscal year, the newspaper El Nuevo Día reported.

“It’s hard, that’s why so many women avoid going to the authorities,” Lugo said. “She took every step that’s recommended to a victim. ... And here we saw that the system unfortunately did not save her.”

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