From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Dozens of Murdered Women Are Missing From Puerto Rican Police Records, New Report Finds
Date December 3, 2019 1:05 AM
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[...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. ] [[link removed]]

DOZENS OF MURDERED WOMEN ARE MISSING FROM PUERTO RICAN POLICE
RECORDS, NEW REPORT FINDS  
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Alleen Brown
November 16, 2019
The Intercept
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_ ...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. _

Mari Mari Narváez., Courtesy of Mari Mari Narváez

 

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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]],
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
[[link removed]]
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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]]
to 2,975, based on data from George Washington University researchers
(a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated
[[link removed]]
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
[[link removed]]
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
[[link removed]]
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
[[link removed]],
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.”

_Alleen Brown is New York-based reporter, focused on environmental
justice issues. Prior to joining The Intercept, she worked as an
education reporter in Minnesota. Her work has been published by The
Nation, In These Times, YES! Magazine, and various Twin Cities
publications. _

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