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Illustration by Zoe van Dijk for Global Press
Women's Rights

Women in Puerto Rico Say Police Aren’t Doing Enough to Combat Harassment

Puerto Rico

Experiencing stalking or harassment is a regular occurrence for many women in Puerto Rico, who say that going to the police doesn’t help. A women’s collective is now working with other groups to push the government to take a stronger stance on the issue.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Yerimar Rivera sits in a coffee shop in Río Piedras, a neighborhood in Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan.

The shop is just a few blocks away from her apartment. It’s the third apartment that she has rented since moving to the city in 2013 to study at the University of Puerto Rico. In each one, she has felt unsafe.

Men follow her home, she says, hurling obscenities at her as she walks. She says that she often feels that she is being watched.

One night in 2015, Rivera fell asleep in her bedroom with the lights on. When she woke, she saw a person filming her with a cellphone through the bars on her bedroom window.

The next day, she went to the police station in Río Piedras and reported what happened. The officer told her that they could not file a formal complaint because she could not describe the person she saw in detail.

“That process was horrible,” she says. “They began to ask me if I slept naked and a ton of super uncomfortable things, so I decided to leave.”

In another incident that occurred afterward, Rivera caught someone running from her apartment door. But this time, she chose not to report it to the police.

“I don’t think the police will do anything,” she says.

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María Cristina Muñoz, 23, walks on Aguada Street to reach her apartment. Two years ago, two men ran towards her while she was walking here. She crossed the street and called a friend from a pizza restaurant to come pick her up. Now, she walks with her keys in hand as a precaution.

Ishbel Cora Rodríguez, GPJ Puerto Rico

The number of reported incidences of stalking and harassment has dropped in recent years, according to the Women’s Advocate Office, a government agency that oversees the enforcement of laws that protect women in Puerto Rico.

But women in Río Piedras say that they continue to experience unwanted verbal remarks, threats and harassment as a result of limited police presence and action in the city. And fewer are choosing to report it.

Aura Jirau, a doctoral student studying at the University of Pittsburgh, lived in Río Piedras from June 2017 until December 2018 while working on her doctoral thesis at the University of Puerto Rico. She says that men frequently made lewd comments about her physical appearance when she walked in Río Piedras.

While there was a police station nearby, she says that she rarely saw officers patrolling the area.

She says the limited presence of police forced her to take matters into her own hands. To feel safer, she changed the way she dressed, walked with headphones in her ears and didn’t look anyone directly in the eyes.

One member of the police force, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of suspension, says that there has been a shortage of active police since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. He says some policemen chose to retire after the hurricane and others moved to the United States.

But Jorge Quiñones, regional police commander in Río Piedras, says that stalking is not among the crimes with the highest incidence in Río Piedras.

“The resources we have are focused on where the problem is the worst,” he says.

In September, the Feminist Collective Under Construction, an activist organization in Puerto Rico, and other women’s organizations presented Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced with a list of proposals to address gender-based violence in Puerto Rico, including: a government campaign to spread awareness about gender equity and gender-based violence; a gender-sensitive curriculum for public schools and government agencies; intensive training for police and prosecutors; and changes to public policy to ensure that the Department of Public Safety promptly addresses reports of harassment, assault and missing women.

The groups urged Vázquez Garced to declare a state of emergency.

Instead, Vázquez Garced issued a national state of alert.

“The national alert does not have the character of obligatory nature, nor of law,” says Zoán Dávila, a lawyer and spokesperson for the collective. “After that press release was issued here, absolutely nothing has happened.”

Dávila says the collective will continue to demand that the governor declare a state of emergency in Puerto Rico and release an executive order with an integrated plan.

“Women and feminists in particular are willing to work to eradicate gender violence,” Dávila says. “Here, the will that is missing is the will of the state.”

María Cristina Muñoz, 23, says she holds her house keys tightly in her fist when she walks in Río Piedras. She does not know if the keys will successfully ward off an attacker, but she hopes that they might give her enough to time to escape.

“I haven’t wanted to stop myself from doing my things because I’m very independent in what I do,” she says.

For Muñoz, Vázquez Garced’s refusal to declare a state of emergency not only reflects a lack of respect for women, but also a lack of respect for people who experience harassment daily and those who have lost their lives because of it.

“Declaring a national alert and not a state of emergency was a play on words to not give the matter the seriousness it deserves,” she says.

This month, the collective is working with the CPTSPR, an organization of professional social workers in Puerto Rico, on a 16-day campaign against gender-based violence to push the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Meanwhile, Rivera is planning to move from the city.

“It’s not that I don’t like the place,” she says. “I love the place. I feel it’s my home. But I’m already counting the days to go because I don’t feel safe.”

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

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