In a yearlong investigation published in partnership with GEN last June, 2019-20 Ida B. Wells fellow Andrea González-Ramírez revealed how the Puerto Rican government has failed to address a domestic violence epidemic on the island. Domestic violence incidents surged after Hurricane Maria, leaving women there more than twice as likely to be murdered by their intimate partners than women on the mainland in 2018. Her reporting encouraged Puerto Rico’s government to take unprecedented steps to address the problem, culminating in the governor’s recent declaration of a state of emergency. We spoke with González-Ramírez about the story and its impact.
Why did you decide to delve into this topic and how did the fellowship help you in terms of completing your investigation?
The investigation got started when I began researching follow-up stories ahead of the one-year mark of Hurricane Maria. I came across women’s rights advocates saying there had been an uptick in intimate partner violence after the storm, and the number of women killed in the first half of 2018 seemed to confirm their allegations. After publishing a piece about the claims, I decided to do a deep dive into why there had been an increase in lethality and whether there were any failures in the system, as organizations have long said.
Over the course of reporting this story, I spoke with advocates and survivors who told stories of police frequently mishandling domestic violence complaints and failing to enforce protective orders. I also found that the police department has its own abuse problem: There were 449 domestic violence complaints against officers between 2015 and 2019. In that period, only one case ended in a conviction.
The story wouldn't have been possible without the support of Type Investigations and the Ida B. Wells fellowship. I received editorial support every step of the way, from crafting my reporting plan to preparing for some of the major interviews, diving through documents, and then the actual writing and editing of the piece. Type also provided extensive fact-checking and legal review before the piece was published, and it also made it possible for the story to be translated into Spanish.
What actions have been taken by the government in Puerto Rico since the investigation was published?
The day after my investigation was published, then-Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed a measure into law offering domestic violence training to municipal police. The Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD) has been under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice since 2013, which among other things requires officers to receive domestic violence training. However, the decree doesn’t extend to municipal police because these departments in Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities function independently from each other and the PRPD.
Vázquez then followed up with an executive order in October that ordered the government to prioritize attending to the crisis. The order addressed some of my major findings, including how police investigate domestic violence incidents, creating a new system to keep track of incident and murder statistics, and requiring agencies to outline what type of funding they needed to address the crisis.
What advocates wanted for the past three years was for the government to declare a state of emergency over gender violence, which current Gov. Pedro Pierluisi just did on January 24.
Why is the state of emergency declaration significant?
It frees up funding and other resources to deal with the crisis immediately—as with a natural disaster, COVID-19, or another emergency. This particular declaration takes a multipronged approach to the crisis. It creates a committee named PARE (Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education of Gender Violence) tasked with reviewing current public policy and making recommendations on what else needs to be implemented.
The declaration also calls for the creation of a mobile app to assist victims and report incidents, as well as a program to check in with women who have filed protective orders. The government will also assign a monitor who’ll oversee the implementation of the measures and report directly to Gov. Pierluisi.
What have you heard or seen from advocates on the island about this recent declaration?
Soon after the news broke, I reached out to Sonia Nieves. She lost her daughter Suliani Calderón Nieves in May 2018, after Suliani's ex-husband murdered her in front of their two children. Her story was a central component of my investigation, and since the murder Sonia has been a vocal advocate against gender violence. She told me: “This is just the beginning. We’re seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll see how it is implemented.”
I think her perspective really captures the mood right now. A spokesperson for the feminist organization Taller Salud told me they see Gov. Pierluisi's actions as both a major victory and a first step. Organizations are definitely prepared to monitor how the declaration is implemented and to hold the government accountable throughout the process.
What is there to keep an eye on, moving forward, now that the declaration has been made?
The government of Puerto Rico has a track record of creating committees for issues, and then nothing comes out of it. Who is ultimately on the PARE committee will also tell us a lot about what type of approach the Pierluisi administration will take—will it prioritize the perspective of feminist organizations that have been on the forefront of this fight, or will it cater to more conservative sectors who helped Pierluisi win the governor's seat in the first place? In terms of funding, agencies have been tasked with creating a budget report that Pierluisi will need to bring before the Financial Oversight and Management Board next month. The board effectively controls Puerto Rico's finances as long as the island needs to pay back its debt, and they could likely push back against some of the funding requests. I'll be keeping an eye on what funding is released and how it's allocated.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.