Thirty-seven days have passed since her aggressor, her ex-partner, grabbed her by the neck after forcibly entering her home in the Villa Hugo community, in Canóvanas. That first attack occurred around midnight on May 27, 2020, and Mildred Williams Martínez survived. After the attack, the 25-year-old woman did what the government expects a survivor of gender-based violence to do: she went to court and requested a protection order, which a judge granted until June 3, and she tried to go on with her life and provide for her three children.

On the other side of the same courtroom was the man who forced his hands on the woman’s neck: Miguel Ángel Carrasquillo Sánchez, then 27 years old. The man knew that now he would not be able to get close or else he would end up in jail, that he would no longer have a hand-to-hand encounter like the day he tried to strangle Williams Martínez in the privacy of her home.

The May 27 aggression had not been the first. “He tied the rims of her car with a rope, he tied them with a rope to the gate so she wouldn’t leave her house. [There was] a pattern of abuse,” Williams Martínez’s former co-worker told the Gender Investigative Unit. The young mother decided to end the relationship. Her former co-worker described her with affection, she stressed on her humility and said she patiently guided her during her first days working in a fast-food restaurant in Canóvanas. “I always told her: ‘Go to school’.” She saw potential in her.

In the end, it was not using ropes or physical violence with which the aggressor decided to end any possibility of a future for Mildred Williams Martínez. When proximity was no longer an option, the assailant used a firearm.

Thirty-seven days passed since he grabbed her by the neck. On July 3, 2020, Williams Martínez was traveling on Route 188, when Carrasquillo Sánchez fired toward the green 1999 Mitsubishi Mirage in which she was returning home after a day of work. It was 12:16 a.m. He did not have a license, but he had gotten a firearm.

There were 82 intimate feminicides, murders of women at the hands of their partners or ex-partners, reported in Puerto Rico between 2017 and 2021. The majority, 59%, were carried out with a firearm, according to an analysis by the Gender Investigative Unit, an alliance between the media outlet Todas and the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish). The data analyzed is not centralized, and comes from the Department of Public Security, the Court Administration, the Gender Equity Observatory and the report The Persistence of Indolence: Feminicides in Puerto Rico 2014-2018, carried out by Proyecto Matria and Kilómetro Cero, along with retired social worker Carmen Castelló Ortiz.

The increasing availability of weapons, legal or illegal, has fueled this type of lethal sexist violence, according to the organizations that have put their attention on these cases, as well as multiple studies in other parts of the world, such as the United States, Mexico, Argentina, including the United Nations, among others. And Puerto Rico presents a deadly formula: high firearms trafficking added to an increasingly flexible Weapons Act.

Higher lethality

Brenda Liz Pérez Bahamonde was killed by at least seven shots. A dozen shell casings were found at Nancy Rosario Marín’s house. Daisy Carrión Navarro was shot twice in the head. María Julia Febus Santiago took 20 bullets. Cases are frequently observed in which the killer shoots repeatedly, particularly at the victims’ heads.

“When a weapon is fired, the chances of it being a fatal injury are much higher than if a person receives several stab wounds or is hit,” Debora Upegui Hernández, an analyst at the Gender Equity Observatory, explained. “If the method of attack had been another, perhaps we would not be talking about a feminicide, but an attempted feminicide,” she added.

A comparative study of Latin American countries showed that, last year, Puerto Rico (49%) followed only Colombia (52%) in the commission of feminicides, not only intimate ones, with a firearm, according to Mundosur’s Latin American Map of Feminicides. The organization noted that the armed conflict and the illicit markets for controlled substances in the neighboring country are elements that facilitate the availability of firearms.

In the rest of Latin America, however, “sometimes there is a higher number of attempted feminicides, and I think this is related to the method used because there, in Latin America, we have seen that the use of firearms is lower because the availability of weapons is lower: it’s harder to get a weapon and to have possession of firearms,” Upegui Hernández said.

Puerto Rico presents a similar pattern to the United States, where 66% of intimate feminicides in 2019 happened with firearms, according to the Everytown for Gun Safety organization.

When the government hands the gun to the killer

Police officer José Rivera Velázquez had his service weapon returned to him in January 2022, after a protection order against him expired. Before the month was out, he used that weapon to murder Pérez Bahamonde. Rubén Dones Batista got his gun license about a month before murdering Carrrión Navarro with a Glock 9-millimeter pistol, one of the most common in Puerto Rico.

In the cases involving a firearm between 2017 and 2021, one in three murderers used a weapon for which they had a license or access to it due to their line of work, mainly as police officers, the Gender Investigative Unit’s analysis shows.

The new Weapons Act went into effect July 1, 2020. It is a more lenient measure that, among other changes, combined possession and carrying the weapon in a single permit. Before, it was   necessary to request a license to possess and another to carry a firearm. It also eliminated the requirement to submit character references; and removed the obligation to show that the applicant fears for their safety.

In 2020, the number of criminal record checks for buying a firearm in Puerto Rico increased by 74.15%, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In addition, there was a complaint of domestic violence filed in at least three of the 18 feminicides perpetrated with firearms for which the killer had a license. Two of those three murderers were police officers. In another case, the media reported, citing anonymous sources, that the victim, Milagros Ivette Ortiz Alvarado, tried to file a complaint, but “the uniform” protected the aggressor: Puerto Rico Police Sergeant Carlos H. Cruz Martínez.

“Obviously, the system protects them. The problem is that in Puerto Rico there are no accountability measures to address this internal problem,” said Mari Mari Narváez, executive director of Kilómetro 0, an organization that has been documenting cases of police abuse since 2014. Mari Narváez highlighted the “buddy system and machismo” embedded in the Police and Justice system as elements that promote “absolute impunity” in cases of gender violence.

When there is a protection order, Act 54 orders the suspension of the license and the seizure of all weapons, although they are returned to the aggressor when the order’s term ends. According to the experience of Lieutenant Johnny Acevedo Román, director of the Puerto Rico Police Bureau’s (PRPB) Weapons Registry Office, most of the suspensions usually last between three and six months. “I have seen some [that last] a year, but they’re not common.” The gun is permanently seized only if the assailant violates the terms of the protective order or is convicted. 

In the case of police officers, whose weapons are provided by the government for their work, “the domestic violence protocol is followed, which is very rigorous. The person’s firearm is seized, and they’re sent to psychological and social work. And the weapon is not given back to that agent, until they are discharged from treatment, and they are well,” Acevedo Román explained.

Carrasquillo Sánchez murdered Williams Martínez with a weapon for which he did not have a license, but it is unknown whether it was registered in someone else’s name, since the Police did not respond to the Gender Investigative Unit’s request for this information. It was also part of 87% of the cases of intimate feminicides perpetrated with firearms in 2020; the highest percentage between 2017 and 2021. The mandatory quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic began that year.

The government’s response: Arm survivors

“If she had a gun, she could have defended herself,” one Facebook user commented when news of Mildred Williams Martínez’s murder broke. Indeed, that was the government’s premise when approving an expedited license for victims of domestic violence as part of the new Weapons Act.

“This is very effective because a woman, when she’s being attacked or is in that situation, can defend herself and her children,” argued Lieutenant Acevedo Román before recounting a case in which the victim refused to obtain the permit and was murdered months later. “If she had had a firearm, maybe things would have been different. She would have defended herself. “I can tell you about many, like that case,” he said, appearing saddened in his office at the Police General Headquarters in Hato Rey.

Women’s Advocate Lersy Boria Vizcarrondo agrees. “Guns have a purpose and that is for everyone’s protection. We support all initiatives that affect the protection of victims,” she said in written statements, adding that the solution to eradicate all manifestations of gender violence focuses on education and prevention.

But what has become the government’s public policy has been highly refuted by dozens of investigations around the world, from the international perspective of the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization, to more local approaches.

“What studies on this subject in the United States have shown is that most of the time it’s those same weapons, the ones the women have, that the aggressors use to kill them. So, it doesn’t serve as self-defense, it simply becomes an auxiliary, in that it gives the aggressor access to a firearm that he can use against her,” said Upegui Hernández, who is also a social psychologist.

The Observatory analyst stressed the importance of looking at the experience of other countries when drafting public policy in Puerto Rico.

Road where Mildred Williams Martínez was murdered in Canóvanas.
 Photo by María de los Milagros Colón Cruz | Todas

Williams Martínez was driving and on the phone, Primera Hora reported. Could she have aimed and fired? Aida Irizarry Torres was a police lieutenant and was murdered by her ex-partner, Héctor Luis Rosado Arroyo. He attacked her with a knife. She did not have time to draw her weapon, reporter Miguel Rivera Puig narrated. Agent Pérez Bahamonde could not do it either when her ex-partner attacked her with his service weapon.

“This does not solve, it does not prevent violence. This can increase violence,” Coraly León Morales, executive director of the Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos women’s shelter insisted. “For us, it’s important to come up with solutions that disrupt everything from the juridical-legal to the cultural, and it seems to me that these are measures that are limited in scope and that don’t address what’s at the root, which is that we live in a patriarchal environment,” she added, inviting everyone to analyze everything with a gender perspective.

The power of a gun, even when it’s not fired
Let’s call her Marina. Her partner abused her psychologically. He illegally owned two firearms. Marina frequently experienced panic and anxiety attacks, and she constantly lived with the stress at the thought that he would use one of these weapons to end her life.

Beatriz, who also goes by another name, has a registered firearm, and so does her assailant. She sometimes expressed fear about the possibility that her attacker would use it against her. Probably, many other times she didn’t show her fear. And many other times she said she felt confident in being able to defend herself.

The Women’s Advocate’s Office (OPM, in Spanish) offered the details of these two cases to the Gender Investigative Unit. Both survivors managed to escape from their relationships after receiving support from OPM: a security plan, escape plan, a safe home, among other services and suggestions.

Women’s Advocate Lersy Boria.
Photo courtesy of La Fortaleza

When Boria Vizcarrondo was asked if she believed that there was a relationship between the availability and easy access to weapons and violence against women, she answered no. “Looking at feminicide cases, we can see that gender violence victims haven’t necessarily died because of a firearm. There are other triggers that affect this cruel and sad act,” she argued in writing, even though studies have concluded that the presence of a weapon does represent a risk factor in these cases.

As opposed to the Women’s Advocate, survivors themselves cited by the OPM said the mere presence of a firearm in the home “undermines their freedom and safety.” Their experiences are supported by studies, from reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by professors at Harvard University, to more recent approaches in Argentina.

“When there are firearms in the home, and the person who regularly has them is the aggressor, that’s an additional element of intimidation. Without having to say a word, it’s a way of intimidating and causes the women to desist from seeking help because that could put them at imminent risk,” said the executive director of the Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos.

“We’ve had survivors where there’s not just one weapon, there are multiple weapons, and there doesn’t necessarily have to be a direct threat that a weapon is going to be used against them. Many times, making the weapon visible, presenting the weapon, putting it on the table in the middle of an argument, without mentioning it, is a deterrent and is something that causes a lot of terror,” León Morales said.

Reclaiming masculinity with guns

Men are the cause of most violent crimes perpetrated with this type of weapon and, therefore, they are the ones who end up in jail the most. They are also the ones who die the most because of a firearm.

“In general, they think that gender is an issue for women or those who are queer, and that it’s not an issue for those who identify as men. And I believe that it’s a mistake -– and I’m not alone in that,” said Professor Catherine Marsh Kennerly, of the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. “The first victim of machismo is the man,” she added, quoting anthropologist Rita Laura Segato.

“We force children in particular to divorce themselves from their emotional side; they can only express their emotions through anger,” said Coraly León Morales. This suppression of emotions and the few channels to manage them are added to other elements of the dominant manifestations of masculinity, such as assuming mainly the role of providing and protecting, imposing respect, being self-sufficient and productive.

“That is a specific patriarchal role, in which you are the owner and master of everyone in your family, and you have to protect them,” said Marsh Kennerly.

“If you have a weapon readily available, and you have all those burdens, all those ideas of what it is to be a man, you have that available to abuse, to threaten, and finally to take the life of someone you supposedly say you love. And that’s rooted in the fact that everyone in the house belongs to you,” the professor added.

Easing of the Weapons Act is being discussed

A series of amendments to make the Weapons Act more flexible, included in alternate House Bills P. de la C. 575 and P. de la C. 382, is still awaiting action. Proposed changes include increasing from 5 to 15 the number of guns a person can have without certifying their safe custody; allowing a licensed person to carry two weapons instead of one; eliminating “dishonorable conditions” as grounds for denying an officer a gun license; narrowing down the list of reasons for denying the license; reducing fines; reducing gun store inspections from six months to one year; among others.

Popular Democratic Party (PPD, in Spanish) Chairman of the House’s Public Safety, Science and Technology Commission, Luis Ortiz Lugo, who defends the measure, is confident that it will be approved in the House, but they are still “working on some amendments” following a PPD caucus. His political peer, Ramón Luis Cruz Burgos, who chaired the commission, affirmed, however, that the measure “is in limbo because it doesn’t have the votes.”

Cruz Burgos was the one who held the only public hearing for the initial bill, before House Speaker Rafael Hernández Montañez dismissed him from the commission for believing that he made “false, defamatory and legally baseless” statements during a struggle for the reconfiguration of the Joint Commission on Special Information at the Comptroller’s Office. And Ortiz Lugo said he has no intention of holding any more hearings. “This has been an open process, and thank God, people responded.”

The commission has available testimonies from the association Defensa del Poseedor de Licencias de Armas de Puerto Rico Inc.  (CODEPOLA), the Club de Tiro de Arecibo, the Guns Rights and Safety Association of Puerto Rico, the National Rifle Association (NRA) of America Puerto Rico State Association, the Department of Public Safety (DSP, in Spanish) and the Legislative Services Office. Groups related to this market also participated in the single hearing.

The Women’s Advocate confirmed that her opinion was not requested. In addition, the Gender Equity Observatory, Kilometer 0 and the women’s advocate group Matria Project, showed evidence that they sent briefs to the commission, but Farrah Rodríguez de la Rosa, Ortiz Lugo’s executive assistant, alleged they didn’t have them and so they had not considered them in their analysis.

“The legislative process of this measure has been very irresponsible,” said Rep. José Bernardo Márquez Reyes, of the Citizen Victory Movement. The lawmaker explained that the measure has changed, and that the presentations and the public hearing held last year respond to a different version of the current alternate bill, which was presented in March of this year. For this reason, he insisted on the need to broaden the discussion, integrate more civil and public sectors, and return to consult with the DSP. “They were consulted on a much more limited version of what is now being pursued.”

“Combine high levels of community violence, high social stressors, with high access to guns, and that’s a terrible combination,” the lawmaker said.

Although they acknowledged that gun control is not the only factor to reduce feminicides and gender violence, the Gender Equity Observatory recommended in its brief “a stricter review in the processes for granting licenses for carrying weapons. Regulation is important and the petitioners must demonstrate the real need for them.” The recommendation coincides with other local and international organizations.

“And, if they tell me, ‘But the criminals have more weapons,’ well, I think we should control those, we have to go see how we control them,” Márquez Reyes argued.

Of some 22 measures presented during the last two years with the word “weapons” in their title, 13 propose to make the Weapons Act more flexible. Seven measures are resolutions to investigate issues related to weapons, or  make access to them more flexible, and only two bills propose greater controls when issuing a license. One of them consisted of requesting a psychological test of the victims of domestic violence before granting them the special license, but it did not prosper. No measure has been presented on arms trafficking.

In 2020, the deadliest year for women in terms of gender-based violence in intimate relationships in Puerto Rico, 13 of the 14 weapons used were unregistered. “Most of the firearms recovered by law enforcement were not originally sold in Puerto Rico. Only 13% of firearms recovered in Puerto Rico were sold there (…),” according to a report by Giffords, a stateside organization against armed violence.

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has documented that the trafficked weapons come to Puerto Rico mainly from Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Georgia.

Rep. Márquez Reyes argued that many of these weapons, although they are brought into Puerto Rico illegally, are purchased legally in the United States. “These four states have substantially weaker gun laws, making it easier for dealers to buy guns,” Giffords’ report also showed. In other words, easy access to weapons in the United States also has a detrimental effect on the circulation of “illegal” weapons in Puerto Rico.

Among the few measures recently approved for the prevention of violence through firearms, is an amnesty for the collection of unregistered weapons that was approved together with the new Weapons Act in 2020. However, the initiative was never carried out.

“COVID happened and one thing coupled with the other and it hasn’t been possible to do it. And they provided 60 days to do it,” said Lieutenant Acevedo Román. He was asked if the voluntary surrender of arms was planned to be arranged at another time. “No, because [the law] provided a specific term.” Legislators have not introduced an amendment to the law to this end.

Lieutenant Johnny Acevedo Román, of the Puerto Rico Police Bureau.
Photo by María de los Milagros Colón Cruz | Todas

On July 13, 2021, Miguel Ángel Carrasquillo Sánchez was sentenced to 26 years in prison for murdering Mildred Williams Martínez. As in his case, in at least another 11 intimate feminicides there are no details of the weapon in the police reports or in the complaints, which suggests that it was not seized. And there is no data collection system that sheds light on it, beyond those identified for this research. There is also no profile of the killer.

Even so, the information available “on the type of weapon used allows us to make these types of recommendations on what could be done to work, for example, on prevention,” Upegui Hernández said. “In this case, we came to the conclusion that to prevent feminicides from happening, [there should be] first of all, more control and limiting the use and availability of firearms.”

Prevention from the community

On the community front, effective prevention initiatives have been developed, such as the Acuerdo de Paz program by Taller Salud in Loíza, which began in 2011. It is a community program that “seeks to organize and mobilize the community to eradicate poverty, inequality, and structural racism. We seek to promote a culture of peace, forgiveness, and community reconciliation that allows greater opportunities for development and transformation for people and their communities.”

The Giffords organization highlighted that, with this program, Taller Salud helped substantially reduce violence with firearms in Loíza, where there was a nearly 80% drop in the number of homicides between 2011 and 2018.

Executive Director Tania Rosario Méndez, told the stateside organization that “Taller Salud’s work confronts the existing narrative about the identity of Blacks and Afro-Puerto Ricans, which criminalizes poverty and blackness, and creates a risk for Black youngsters.”

“For us, it’s essential to find solutions to problems… within the framework of the culture, the idiosyncrasy, and the situation itself,” said Program Manager Zinnia Alejandro. According to the information available, since 2013, no intimate feminicide has been reported in Loíza.

Journalist Nicole Hsiao Sánchez contributed to this story.

If you or someone you know is in a domestic violence situation, call 787-489-0022, which operates around the clock, for guidance and help.