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Woman's Killing In Puerto Rico Spurs Calls For Government To Act

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Puerto Rico, women are taking to the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting in Spanish).

CHANG: Their demand - stop killing us. The island is in shock over the murder last week of a pregnant woman whom the FBI says was killed by her lover, one of Puerto Rico's star athletes. The case has reignited longstanding demands that the government address a crisis of violence against women. NPR's Adrian Florido reports from San Juan. And just a warning - some details in this story are disturbing.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The case drew wall-to-wall media attention from the moment 27-year-old Keishla Rodriguez went missing last week after her family said she was a month pregnant with the child of Felix Verdejo, a star boxer who competed for Puerto Rico at the London Olympics. Rodriguez's mother told local TV that the boxer had wanted her daughter to abort, but her daughter was thrilled with the pregnancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEILA ORTIZ RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Rodriguez's body was found in a lagoon on Saturday, and the next day the FBI arrested Felix Verdejo. The details of its accusation against him are so troubling, we won't describe them here. But the case has reignited the fury, frustration and sorrow felt by women across the island who've spent years demanding their government do more to protect them. Puerto Rico has one of the world's highest per capita rates of women killed by their partners. Over the weekend, women marched at the lake where Rodriguez's body was found and outside the governor's mansion.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Mariangellie Munoz Cortes said she was furious.

MARIANGELLIE MUNOZ CORTES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: We can't keep living like this, she said. Julieta Hornos Reina was with her 9-month-old daughter.

JULIETA HORNOS REINA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: They keep killing us, she said. Men have to understand we aren't their property, that we deserve to live. She said the case of Keishla Rodriguez pained all of Puerto Rico, but many women have been killed by men who are not famous, she said. In January, Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Pierluisi, declared a state of emergency over gender violence. Activists had been demanding that for years, ever since social workers noticed a rise in domestic abuse in the chaotic months after Hurricane Maria. The governor's declaration included $7 million for a slew of new policies - anti-gender violence curricula for schools, police training on responding to abuse, new tools for prosecutors. Over the weekend, the governor recommitted himself to ending violence against women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEDRO PIERLUISI: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But he faces challenges. Among them is Puerto Rico's bankruptcy. The federal board working to get the island out of debt has told the governor he can only spend $200,000, not 7 million. Vilmarie Rivera Sierra works with domestic violence victims and is on the governor's task force. Without real money, she said, its work will go nowhere. But the case of Keishla Rodriguez has opened people's eyes.

VILMARIE RIVERA SIERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: It's the first time we've gotten to follow a family as it searched for its daughter, she said, only to find her dead. As painful as it's been, she thinks it's also an opportunity.

RIVERA SIERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: May this be the jolt we needed, she said, to demand the government act to protect Puerto Rico's women.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.