Puerto Rico 2020

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PUERTO RICO 2020

The authorities failed to ensure the rights of thousands of people made homeless by earthquakes in January. The number of femicides increased. For the first time, federal hate crime charges were brought following the killings of two transgender women.

Background

In March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Wanda Vázquez declared a state of emergency and signed the first of many Executive Orders issued during the year in relation to curfews.

In September, health care professionals protested over the reported lack of PPE and access to tests for the COVID-19 virus, according to news reports.

Children’s rights

In May, the Youth Development Institute, a local NGO, warned that measures related to COVID-19 could increase child poverty from 58% to 65% if sufficient resources were not allocated to mitigate it.

Civil society organizations criticized the closing of canteens that provide free school lunches in public schools in the context of COVID-19, indicating that an estimated 70% of children in the public education system live in poverty and rely on school meals.

Right to housing

In January, two earthquakes resulted in damage to hundreds of homes and left thousands of people living in temporary housing, shelters, vehicles or tents for months.

By late March, according to news reports, the Department of Housing had closed all the refugee centres they administered.

By September, according to the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey, of the 40,628 requests for housing assistance made to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the most affected municipalities, only 34% had received assistance.

Media reports estimated that 10,000 families may still have had their homes affected ten months after the earthquakes.

Violence against women and girls

Despite declaring a state of national alert in 2019, a symbolic response to the high number of gender-based violence cases, the authorities did not present a plan to mitigate this or protect the rights of women and girls.

By late December, 60 people had been killed due to their gender, compared with 37 in the whole of 2019, according to the Observatory of Gender Equality of Puerto Rico.

During the first three months of the island-wide lockdown implemented in response to COVID-19, between mid-March and late May, there were 11 femicides, compared with six during the same period in 2019, according to data from the Observatory of Gender Equality of Puerto Rico.

The government continued to exclude any content related to “gender” from the educational curriculum.

Excessive use of force

During the island-wide lockdown implemented in an effort to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, there were reports of excessive use of force by the police enforcing lockdown measures, including a verified video in which police appeared to stop an individual on his way to get food and other basic items.1

By October, the police had received more than 3,300 complaints related to alleged violations of Executive Orders issued since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and had arrested more than 1,000 people for alleged breaches.

Freedom of assembly

The day before the annual 1 May protests, the police announced that protests were prohibited by Executive Order. Following criticism by civil society organizations who alleged this was unconstitutional, the protests went ahead.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

Among the 60 femicides during the year, six of those killed were transgender people, four more than in the previous year, according to the Observatory of Gender Equality of Puerto Rico.

In February, the violent killing of Alexa Luciano Ruiz, a transgender woman, provoked a public outcry. According to news reports, the day before her killing the police had intervened after a complaint was made against her for using the women’s bathroom in a fast-food restaurant, photos of which went viral on social media.

In April, for the first time, federal authorities in Puerto Rico brought charges under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by former President Obama in 2009, for the killing of two other transgender women, Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Peláez Sánchez.


  1. Americas: Authorities must protect people from COVID-19 instead of resorting to repressive measures (News, 15 May)