Xile sits atop a tombstone, arranging flowers and speaking in whispers. She’s talking to her mother, telling her that she misses her and has "a lot of little things" to share with her, even though she’s in heaven.
“I wish you would come back,” the seven-year-old says. “But I know that’s stupid. No one comes back when they die.”
Her mother, Angie Noemí González Santos, was this year’s first victim of a femicide in Puerto Rico. She was killed by her husband, Xile's father, who confessed to strangling his wife and throwing her off a 30-foot cliff. The tombstone is at the edge of the ravine where Angie’s body was found.
These days, the González Santos family finds comfort in the visits they make to pray a rosary at kilometer 4.8 of the Coamo Arriba neighborhood—on a lonely road in the mountains in the center of the island.
On the side of the road, under the blaring sun, they wear black T-shirts with Angie's face stamped on them, water the plants that surround the tombstone and recite the Hail Mary and the Our Father.
Since January 15, when Angie was murdered, this has become the family’s monthly routine. The killing heightened widespread fury across the island over a wave of femicides; it also triggered the government to declare an unprecedented state of emergency for gender-based violence—a move long sought by activists.
In Puerto Rico, a woman is violently murdered every seven days due to her gender, according to data from the organizations Proyecto Matria, Kilómetro Cero and the Gender Equity Observatory of Puerto Rico. In the absence of comprehensive police statistics, these organizations have become leaders in tracking the violence.
That’s equivalent to 3 femicides per 100,000 women, one of the highest rates in Latin America and nearly in line with the rate in the Dominican Republic, 3.2, and Peru, 3.4, according to a report on the “persistent indifference” toward femicides in Puerto Rico by Project Matria and Kilómetro Cero, which looked at data from 2014 to 2018.
Femicides have also worsened amid the “hunger, poverty and lack of health services and government support networks” available since Hurricane María hit in 2017; and since the COVID-19 pandemic forced women to be “locked up” with their attackers, according to advocacy organizations.
Until mid-May of this year, the country mourned Angie Noemí, Jeanette Rodríguez Ramos, Rosita Alicea Delgado, Luz Vélez Santiago, Andrea Ruiz Costas, Keishla Rodríguez Ortiz and 15 other victims of femicide.
Observatorio de Equidad de Género de Puerto Rico (Gender Equity Observatory of Puerto Rico) has gathered the following data on femicides and deaths possibly linked to gender violence on the island.
There were 60 fatalities in 2020. From January to April 2021, there were 21 deaths. About 30% of the victims had an intimate or other relationship with their aggressor. More than 40% of the cases are still under investigation, which implies that the authorities have not yet identified a motive for the crime and/or cause of death.
After Angie's murder, on January 15, the government declared a state of emergency over gender-based violence.
The deaths have led to widespread outrage across Puerto Rico. But behind the public fury are mothers, fathers, children, friends and other loved ones—left with a wound that doesn’t heal; many times they also face court battles and have questions with no answers.
The enduring grief left behind by femicides is rarely discussed.
"At the social level, this is invisible," reflects Amárilis Pagán, executive director of the organization Proyecto Matria, which offers help to women affected by gender violence.
“What the public usually sees after [a femicide] worries and bothers me: the pain of the family as if it were a display,” adds Pagán, a lawyer and member of the government commission created to find solutions to the violence. “We watch the family's pain on television or see it in a photo in the newspaper and we are moved, but the next day we forget.”
Several months after Angie Neomí's murder, her parents and daughters allowed us to accompany them in their grief and showed us how they are learning to cope without her.
In her living room, in the remote Palo Hincado neighborhood in the town of Barranquitas, on a mountain in the center of the island, she set up an improvised altar to her only daughter, who turned 29 just weeks before her death. It features flowers, a cross draped with rosaries and a banner of Angie’s smiling face.
"People say: 'You torture yourself by going to the site.' I don’t know why but I want to go there. Every month on the anniversary of her death, we go to Coamo,” says Elba, 48.
The site Elba refers to is the ravine where Angie's body was found, where a part of them was also lost forever. They placed her tombstone at the edge of the cliff and hung messages of love for her in a nearby tree. "I love you with my life. Have a happy day mom, wherever you may be,” reads a note from one of her daughters.
It’s an especially painful reminder for Angie's father, David Santos Muñoz, who built the tombstone with tiles that he planned to use in the house he was building for his daughter, below the family’s home. Now it’s full of furniture, building materials and clothes, physical reminders of Angie's plans cut short.
Elba recalls how she cried inconsolably while her husband David was building the tombstone. "I would watch and say: 'How unfair, this was supposed to be in my daughter's house.' It’s not fair, this was a girl who was just beginning to live.”
There are just a few things left to finish: the windows, floors and final touches. David plans to one day fulfill the promise he made to his daughter.
David vividly remembers when his daughter, who worked as a nurse, used to arrive home after her days spent at an elderly care center. The last time he saw her on the balcony was Thursday, January 14. The next day, Angie didn’t return from her night shift. That Friday, the 15th, Elba didn’t receive the “hi mommy” text that her daughter sent every morning.
Intuition kicked in. Just days before, Angie had decided to separate from her partner of 16 years. It was a tumultuous relationship full of ups and downs. Once, when she was a teenager, Angie’s parents even tried to file a complaint.
A voicemail about the breakup worried Elba, who has been living in Connecticut since Hurricane María hit in 2017.
For years, Elba had been afraid that her daughter's partner would do something to Angie or her granddaughters. She describes him as controlling; he made Angie video call him to verify where she was every time she went out and once threatened to "burn her." In that message to her mom, Angie described her helplessness in the face of the man who "had not let her live since she was 13 years old,” when they first met.
In the WhatsApp message, Angie told her mom:
"He's crying, crying, crying, that he wants to be with me, that he wants to try ... Mommy, I've been trying for 10 years. I’m sick of him, he doesn’t understand. And I told him, ‘Just be my friend. I want to be your friend, I don't have bad plans, I don’t want things to be bad, I don't want us to be enemies ... For the girls, we will be fine, but please do not force me to have a relationship with you that I do not want, I cannot stand you anymore.’ I don't want anyone to stop me, I don't want anyone to call me in the mornings to ask me what I am doing, where I am, why I’m taking so long ... I want to have my own life, I have not lived since I was 13 years old."
Click to listen Angie's full message to her mom.
Last year, Elba and the family grew more worried. She remembers the day she begged her daughter to get away for good and apply for a protection order—after Angie told her about a conversation she’d had with her partner.
"‘Mommy, he told me: ‘You’d be very easy to kill, but I better kill the three girls, and I’ll kill myself so you suffer all your life,’" says Elba, relaying her daughter’s words. The family encouraged her to leave him and plan a safe escape with her daughters to Connecticut, to her mother's home. But Angie was never convinced that a piece of paper from the authorities could offer a solution, so she never applied for one.
It’s very common for victims to be reluctant to request a protection order, says Amárilis Pagán, of Proyecto Matria. In her more than 20 years of helping women affected by partner-based violence, she’s seen it countless times. To sum up why, she explains: The women "are experts at surviving and persisting."
Angie didn’t think "that a piece of paper would defend her," her mother says. She thought, “It’s not going to protect me because he knows where I work, where I travel, at any moment he can get in his car, he can do anything to me,” Elba adds.
That’s why Elba knew something was wrong when Angie disappeared on that Friday in January. Her fears were heightened when she received a call from the murderer himself.
"There was a voice message from him that shocked me completely. He was talking about her in the past tense: ‘She was a liar, that's why this happened to her,’ he said. That same night I started looking for a ticket,” she recalls. She begged her husband "not to take his eyes off her granddaughters," as she feared that her son-in-law would do something to them before she could arrive on the island.
She landed hours later and began the search, hoping to find her daughter alive, breathing "even a little." Accompanied by a cousin, she searched day and night—shouting Angie’s name through lonely fields and cliffs in the central mountains of the island.
She didn’t stop until security camera footage showed that Angie’s partner was with her the morning she disappeared. When confronted by police, he confessed that he strangled her in the middle of an argument.
One of Angie’s daughters left Elba a message, confirming her worst nightmare: "Grandma, daddy was arrested,” the girl said. “I'm scared."
He claimed that everything happened very fast and that Angie didn’t have time to defend herself. But Elba believes Angie fought for her life—and to see her 7-, 11- and 13-year-old girls grow up.
He also confessed to throwing Angie's body down the ravine at kilometer 4.8 in the Coamo Arriba neighborhood. That sort of contempt is common in cases of femicide, according to Proyecto Matria and Kilómetro Cero.
According to these organizations, between 2014 and 2018, women victims of gender-based violence turned up burned, slaughtered, stabbed and raped.
Since Angie was murdered, Elba cries tears tinged with anger. At times, she wonders what else she could have done to save Angie from her killer. In her grief, Elba—a woman of strong character—admits feeling “defeated” by the man who took her daughter’s life and left her granddaughters motherless. The girls are currently receiving psychological support.
“How could he have done that to the girls?” she asks. “He knew that they adored their mother.”
"There are many things I never got to say," she laments. “I didn't know I was going to lose her.”
She recalls when Angie had skin and breast cancer in 2017. “I cried for her when she had cancer, when I thought I was going to lose her. Imagine now,” she says. "There are no words, there is no breath, there is no priest, there is no pastor, there is no one who can provide comfort.”
The devastation abates only when she recounts memories of Angie, especially in the months before her death. In remission from cancer, she would put on her tennis shoes and run in the neighborhood in the mornings, getting healthy after her treatment. She enjoyed taking her daughters out for ice cream, or walking with them on the beach to record TikTok videos.
Elba also finds peace in rituals—at the monthly prayer in front of the ravine where Angie was found and standing before the altar in the living room. Even so, “there is no day when I feel better, there is no month, there is nothing,” she says.
It’s common for those left behind after violent death to feel frustration, guilt and deep sadness, says Angélica García, coordinator of the Alliance for Social Peace (Alapás), an organization that helps victims of crime, especially the families of people who have been murdered.
The process involves “trying to adapt your life to the fact that that person is no longer here and seeking to transform their memory or the love you have for them,” she says. “We have seen that family members are afraid of forgetting the victim, of forgetting her face, her voice… that's why they turn to photos, to rituals.”
Among Angie’s three daughters, Xile, the youngest, is most expressive about her grief. Without being asked, she remembers what it was like to hug her mom before going to bed. "She felt so good," she says, extending her arms and speaking slowly, remembering her mother's affection.
Xile says she wants to be "just like her mommy” when she grows up—she wants to dress like her, be a nurse and even get braces.
We asked her to draw a picture of her mom. She put Angie in the midst of dozens of intertwined hearts.
Despite years of increasing femicides in Puerto Rico, the government is not prepared to handle the trauma that these murders unleash on the families and friends of the victims, says Pagán, from Proyecto Matria.
"Trauma management has very specific models of care for the people who survive it. In trauma, one can turn to substance abuse, alcoholism, enter a depression, begin to lose memory or cognitive ability, even isolate socially,” she says. “There are so many ramifications of trauma and still in Puerto Rico we do not see specialized care for families who experience such loss.”
Elba and David fought two legal battles in the midst of their grief. In the first, they reached a settlement to send Roberto Rodríguez to prison for half a century for murder.
Sometimes they wonder if it was the right thing to do. They wanted to guarantee Rodríguez would get 50 years in jail—of which he’ll likely serve some 20, according to a judge consulted by Univision Noticias—rather than go before a jury and receive a far more lenient sentence, Elba says.
Elba says she sensed sexism from the police officer who was in charge of the search, who suggested Angie had disappeared on her own volition. "You don't think your daughter wanted to take a break? ... She was young, she was tired, taking care of three girls, work...,” Elba says the agent told her when she desperately insisted they continue searching for her daughter.
Experts consulted by Univision agreed that police and judicial authorities in Puerto Rico fail to address cases of femicide, which is not officially a category of crime. Until this year, police often classified the murders as "crimes of passion,” a concept considered "offensive" and "obsolete" under international standards.
According to the island’s Gender Equity Observatory, the government only reports deaths due to gender violence when the aggressor committed suicide. Of the 60 femicides collected by that organization last year, half remained open at the end of 2020.
Sometimes the courts don’t facilitate the ordeal for the families. “We have seen that the judicial system is not a friend of the families who are experiencing the trauma of a femicide,” Pagán says. “The way the bailiffs treat families, they want the family to remain completely calm as they see their daughter's murderer sitting a few feet away.”
That’s why Elba and David accepted the sentence proposed by the prosecutor.
"Justice was served, it was resolved,” David says with a hint of resignation. “It had so much weight. But I think the decision we made was good.”
David managed that first court battle. Elba was in charge of the second, the fight for custody of their three granddaughters, which was granted days after our last visit to her house in Barranquitas. She was granted total protection of her granddaughters. Until then, the girls lived with her and her husband, and could see her paternal grandparents only on supervised visits, as decided by the Department of the Family.
“They gave me custody,” Elba wrote to Univision in late May with celebratory hand emojis. At the time, she was preparing Angie’s oldest daughter's eighth-grade middle school graduation cap.
Moments like those remind Elba and David that life continues even though Angie is gone.
On May 23, they celebrated Xile's seventh birthday with a portable pool and a unicorn float. They decorated the entrance of the house with the LOL dolls that the girl loves so much.
A speaker played salsa and reggaeton. David prepared skewers and hamburgers on the grill. Elba helped Xile open her gifts while the little girl gave her hugs and spoke into her ear. And in the street across the street, her two sisters, Roa and Gei, rode a four-track motorcycle over and over with the other neighborhood kids.
It was clear that day that Elba and David were determined to continue living—most of all to honor the promise they made to their daughter. "She wanted the girls to study, to be something in life, so we are going to do everything possible to help her have that peace of mind that they will be fine."
"I tell Davo that we are starting over," Elba said that afternoon, remembering a phrase that now gives them hope.
We asked Elba Santos, mother of Angie Noemí González, her suggestions for any woman who is suffering gender violence. Elba says it’s important not to be afraid to start life over “from scratch” in order to get out of a relationship.
“I always say that Angie used the paperwork as an excuse (not to apply for a restraining order), but mostly I think it was the fear of starting from scratch,” says Elba. "My advice to all of them is forget about fear, forget about material things. If you have a house, leave everything, because your emotional, mental and physical health is more important than staying in that life."
For people who have lost a loved one, Angélica García, Alapás coordinator, says it’s important to seek help and identify resources suited to your particular situation.
“For me it might not work to go to a private psychologist who doesn’t understand grief for violent death,” she says. “So identify the organizations, such as Alapás, that work specifically with grief for violent death, places that have that sensitivity, that give you that space.”
“Everyone is different, but a good first step is to evaluate how you’ve handled the situation,” she says, concluding: “Don’t blame yourself for how you feel. Identify how you have felt, how you have handled the situation and then analyze where you can go next.”
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