Yissel Milanés lets her hair fall over her right cheek, to cover the glass eye that marks the most tragic moment of her life.
On March 14, 2012, the Cuban mother of two was celebrating her 27th birthday at her home in Kendall, decorated with balloons for the occasion. José Luis Duarte Borrero, her husband at the time, came home and, without warning, shot her in the face.
The bullet went through her right eye and shattered part of her skull. It is still lodged in her head, but she arrived at a hospital alive, thanks to a Miami-Dade policeman who controlled the bleeding with a couple of towels. Since that tragic night, Milanés has undergone nearly two dozen reconstructive surgeries and many sessions of psychological counseling to rebuild her life.
“I’ve gone through a lot of surgeries, but I will never be the same physically,” Milanés said. “That has lowered my self-esteem, because I used to think that I had a very pretty face. And now it’s not the same. I am not the same. But I keep going for my kids. They give me the strength to keep fighting.”
The Milanés case was just one of the 25,000 cases of domestic violence recorded by the Miami-Dade Police Department between 2010 and 2014.
Miami-Dade has the highest number of domestic violence cases reported in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Its figures show that 9,811 cases were reported last year in the county, which also has the largest population in the state, with 2.6 million residents.
Domestic violence in Miami-Dade is a “grave phenomenon” because of the number and brutality of the cases, said Barbara Brewer, a social worker with the county police who has been helping local victims for two decades.
The toughest part, according to Brewer, is that many victims refuse to report the abuse to authorities, for many different reasons. They depend financially on their partners, and don’t want to take that risky step. Or they hang on to the dream of giving their children “a stable family.”
Milanés says that dream is what led her to forgive Duarte at least five times for the verbal and physical aggressions she suffered during their six-year relationship. She had been a widow for more than 10 years, and did not want her youngest son, now 8 and the son of Duarte, to suffer like her daughter, now 12, did without a father after her father died.
But the physical abuse only increased, and Milanés, a native of the Cuban province of Las Tunas, finally decided to separate from Duarte in 2012.
“A little before my birthday I had told him that I was tired, that I did not want to stay with him, that I’d had it,” Milanés said. “So he just thought, ‘If she's not mine, she’s not anyone else’s.’ He wouldn’t leave me alone. Until he decided to kill me.”
During the birthday party, Duarte went up to the main bedroom on the second story of the Kendall house and shot Milanés. She does not remember what happened. The police report shows Duarte went into hiding that same night. He remains a fugitive. Detectives suspect Duarte, who is from Camagüey province in Cuba, may have fled to the island via Mexico.
The thousands of cases of domestic violence reported to Miami-Dade police are investigated by a team of 12 detectives. Five years ago, the unit had about 30 officers, but the staff has been reduced in successive budget cuts, according to police sources.
“I think the volume [of cases] is very high, and we do the best we can with the resources we have,” said Sgt. Armando Planas, who is in charge of a group of detectives in the Domestic Violence Unit.
Detective Jennifer Capote, now spokesperson for the county police, says that in the nine years she investigated hundreds of cases of domestic violence, barely five went to trial.
Aside from the police work, Capote added, authorities must strengthen preventive measures such as awareness campaigns about a phenomenon that is growing in size and complexity.
“When the victims are called by the prosecution to testify about their cases, the majority decide not to cooperate,” Capote said. “Some believe they will not get any help, or that they won’t be believed, for example because they are undocumented.”
One South American woman living in southwestern Miami-Dade told el Nuevo Herald that she kept silent about the abuses she suffered for two years at the hands of her partner, a public official.
The victim asked to be identified in this report only as Verónica because she fears reprisals.Verónica also asked that the public official not be identified, fearing new abuses. But her complaint of domestic violence was confirmed by Miami-Dade police. The public official was dismissed from his job.
Verónica faced a deportation order, and her partner knew it. But what worried her the most was the future of her two young children.
“My fear was that I would be arrested. . . . I don’t have any family here, so who would have taken care of my children?” Verónica said. “You know when a case starts, but not when it ends. If I had to spend two or three years in prison (waiting for deportation), where were they going to be all that time?”
Verónica said she dropped an initial complaint about eight years ago, but filed a complaint with Miami-Dade police after a second attack.
Detectives investigated Verónica’s case diligently, and also obtained for Verónica a U Visa, granted to victims of crimes such as domestic violence. After receiving that visa, Verónica rebuilt her life and is now in another relationship that she says makes her happy.
Amid the avalanche of domestic violence cases, domestic violence detectives have updated their search for Duarte, now 35 years old, making him one of their most wanted fugitives, charged with attempted murder.
His victim, Milanés, called on the community to help her get justice.
“Every year, as my birthday gets near, my children tell me I should call the police. They are afraid that he will return to shoot me again,” said Milanés. “That's why I’m asking the community to send any tips to the police. That’s the only way we will be able to prevent a new victim from attack.”
Follow Enrique Flor on Twitter @kikeflor
How to get help
▪ Call the Miami-Dade Police special-victims unit, 305-476-5423, or victims’ assistance at 305-285-5900.
▪ To report a case anonymously, call CrimeStoppers, 305-471-TIPS (8477) or visit www.crimestoppersmiami.com.
▪ Call the State Attorney’s Office, 305-547-0150.
▪ A national guide for victims seeking support is available at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
A four-part series:
Part Three: Some domestic workers face double abuse