David Ovalle / Miami Herald (TNS)
MIAMI — It took just two days to ring up the first domestic violence fatalities of 2022, a murder-suicide. After a bitter argument at their home near Miami Lakes, Fernando Cintron, 33, shot and killed his wife, Ariij Al-Husani, a 40-year-old decorated US customs officer. Then he killed himself.
In the ensuing months, there have been more gut-wrenching examples: the father who fatally shot his two young children before turning the gun on himself in Miami Lakes, the Instagram model who fatally stabbed her boyfriend during a violent argument in their luxury Miami high -rise, the Little River mother who was embroiled in years of domestic turmoil before police say she strangled her own young children.
Then, there the case of Carl Monty Watts, 45, to an ex-con who fatally shot his wife, Shandell Harris, 30, in front of horrified children at a Jewish community center pool in Northeast Miami-Dade on April 3.
These were the latest examples of what authorities say has been a spike in domestic-related killings in Miami-Dade County over the past five years. Although Miami-Dade has bucked the national trends of sharp increases in homicides, domestic homicides have nevertheless increased, alarming victim advocates who point to the long grind of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty as contributing factors.
“Definitely, during economic stressful times, we always see an increase in domestic violence,” said Laura Finley, a Barry University professor of sociology and criminology and advocate for victims.
This year’s increase isn’t unprecedented — there were over 50 domestic killings in Miami-Dade in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession sparked by the financial meltdown of the housing industry.
Experts say the world political and economic turmoil of the past few years have likely contributed as well, along with record gun sales in the United States.
“Everybody is done with the pandemic. We’re dealing with pent-up stress, anxiety and aggression that’s just leading people to act in nefarious ways,” said Alexis Piquero, a University of Miami criminology professor.
The numbers have been rising for several years. In 2021, there were 40 domestic homicides, which accounted for 16 percent of all homicides, according to Miami-Dade County’s Domestic Violence Fatality & Child Abuse Review Team. That’s up from 33 homicides the previous year.
Five years earlier, in 2017, there were only 21 domestic homicides, which accounted for just 9 percent of the overall cases across Miami-Dade County, according to the review team’s data.
“That’s not trivial. That’s almost double,” Piquero said of the rate jump from 2017 to 2021.
Despite the high-profile domestic killings so far this year, it’s too early to tell whether the trend will continue. But less than a third of the year in the books, seven county police departments that investigate homicides have reported at least 13 cases so far.
The killers have ended their own lives in several instances. In march alone, two elderly men shot and killed their wives, and then themselves, in separate cases in Hialeah. In February, a 70-year-old Miami man named Lazaro Vargas-Yera shot and killed his partner, Julia Maylen Hernandez-Lopez, 62, then got into a gunfight with police officers. It remains unclear whether he killed himself or was felled by police bullets.
Fatalities, of course, capture only the most extreme cases. There are a lot more.
Victim advocates say cases of domestic violence are notoriously unreported, with some women afraid to call 911 or press charges. And the pandemic certainly skewed reporting and stats.
In Miami, domestic-violence petitions dropped early in the pandemic, as did arrests — which wasn’t unusual, as cops were making fewer arrests overall. In 2020, the number of felony and misdemeanor domestic violence arrests in Miami-Dade dropped by more than 11 percent from the previous year, according to State Attorney’s records.
But by 2021, the number of domestic-violence arrests had rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, as Miami-Dade jails again began to fill up. The same went for domestic-violence petitions, which increased by 10 percent in 2021 from the previous year, records show.
Victim advocates stress that resources are plenty, including county-run shelters and housing programs, outreach centers located at five area courthouses and even an around-the-clock text line: 305-285-5900. There’s a bevy of South Florida nonprofits that help victims, like the Safe Space Foundation, Miami Bridge Youth & Family Services and Mujer Inc.
Somy Ali, the founder of South Florida’s No More Tears organization, said calls for help skyrocketed during the pandemic and have stayed high. The organization helps find safe houses and apartments for victims.
She hopes that her efforts have staved off the most tragic outcomes — like killings. In one recent case, a neighbor referred a woman who was in an arranged marriage, and had been abused for years by a husband who kept a Glock pistol by his side.
No More Tears called police officers, who helped her and her son get out of the house.
“We got her into safe housing, and then an apartment. She’s now in the midst of a divorce, and has a license to work — she’s doing eyebrows for women — and is getting child support and alimony,” Ali said. “We were able to do all this for her in six months. It’s a success story, but nonetheless, she suffered 10 years of abuse.”
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