7 Murders in 8 Months: The Increasing Wave of Murders of Members of the LGBTQ Community in Puerto Rico
by Mariela Nieves
This past Wednesday morning the body of the 7th victim was found. The cadaver was lying on the sand at the beach in the town of Loiza, PR. It was the body of an approximately 25 year old male, presumably a transexual or transgender individual, who was wearing a long black hair wig, a fitted blue shirt, gray sandals and female underwear. The police noted that (for unknown reasons still) no clothing but the female underwear was covering the area below the waist. The body was impacted with multiple gunshots (police found 12 bullet shells on the crime scene); this young and lifeless human being has yet to be identified.
Since 2002 there have been 26 murders of LGBTQ people, 7 of which have occurred in the past 8 months. This is an alarming and outrageous situation. Even more outrageous is that neither the local media nor the international media is paying much attention to this wave of murders. The only case that has had a relatively fair coverage was the murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado. Jorge Steven is the 19 year old boy whose body was found dismembered, decapitated and burnt this past November; probably one of the most brutal crimes ever committed in Puerto Rico, if not the most brutal. This case sounds like a front-page headline, but surprisingly the local media in PR was barely covering the case during the first week after the murder. This all changed after a young and brave member of the LGBTQ Puerto Rican community -named Christopher Pagan- sent a CNN iReport about the case. CNN heard Christophe’s voice and the case spread all over the news in the USA and many other countries. It was then, after feeling the pressure of the international media, that the local (Puerto Rican) media really started to talk about it.
In addition, because of the vast media coverage, vigils and protests arose in several cities in the USA and PR. These were the most significant manifestations against the Puerto Rican homophobia inside and outside my country. The pain and the rage of the LGBTQ community and sympathizers from PR and many other places were intense. The support towards the LGBTQ community seemed strong and unremitting. It was impressive. We felt hopeful. It felt like something was really changing. It felt like many eyes, minds and hearts were being opened right then and there. Some people even called Jorge Steven “the Matthew Shepard of Puerto Rico”. Back then, Jorge Steven was only the 4th victim of this recent wave of murders that increased dramatically to 7 murders in the past 8 months.
Puerto Rico is a great and beautiful country; and its people are the most warm and welcoming people you could ever meet. However, we have a history of homophobia and I guess old habits -and in this case- old prejudices die hard. I see most of our fellow Latin-American nations making perceptible progress with gay rights and related issues. I cannot help but wonder why the Caribbean is still probably the most homophobic and LGBTQ unfriendly territory in the whole western hemisphere. My theory is that it is because we are islands, we are geographically isolated; therefore we do not often have direct contact with people different from us. We cannot cross a border and immediately experience a significantly different culture from ours. Most Puerto Ricans do not have the means to get out of the country to travel and experience other cultures. What is our frame of reference for what is acceptable and unacceptable then? It is television and other media; it is our political and religious leaders; it is the tradition of homophobia; it is what our parents taught us and what the previous generation taught our parents. This is a vicious cycle and we are stuck with the mentality of machismo. Neither our media nor our leaders help much with this cause. In fact, some of our most important leaders (like the president of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz) have declared many times in the press horrifying homophobic comments. The government does not do anything about this.
In fact, the only person constantly fighting for gay rights in PR is Pedro Julio Serrano, a Puerto Rican gay activist who has been attacked and almost killed in the past, solely for being gay and out. He is also the only person who has truly pressured the police to try to solve the crimes and investigate the hate crime side on each of them. “Even though its been established as public policy to not tolerate hate crimes, the truth of the matter is that up to this date the PR Police and the Justice Department refuse to classify these crimes as hate crimes to avoid doing an in-depth investigation and get rid of the case by classifying it like any other victim”, Serrano stated to the media.
In this recent wave of murders, the crimes seem to be unrelated and isolated. In fact, the murderers of some of these assassinations have been caught and confessed to their crimes; yet none of them have been classified as committing a hate crime (even in the cases where murderers have confessed they killed because the victim was gay or they had “mistaken” the victim with a woman when the person was a transexual).
The crimes being unrelated is an even more worrisome situation. It’s not like there is one serial killer or only a certain group of people committing these crimes. It means that this mentality of machismo is predominant in the Puerto Rican collective thinking and culture.
The Puerto Rican LGBTQ community is not safe and many of their members live in great fear. We need help and the help we need is impossible to get from our own resources right now. We need help from international media and international pro-gay rights entities and associations. We need better education. We need a strong anti-homophobia campaign. Puerto Ricans do not have a voice in the American government. We need CNN and the media in general to help report these vicious and most likely homophobic motivated killings. Puerto Rico is a USA territory, after all. Our President is your President, yet we do not get to vote in the presidential elections; but this is not the issue at hand right now... Would you report about this if so many of these victims where being murdered due to their sexual orientation in the states? We cannot allow for a certain group of people to be second class citizens in a way that their lives become expendable.
I know my people and their fears; I know about my government and its enormous flaws; I know about the justice system and its repeated mistakes... I know my country and I know that now more than ever we need your help. Please, this is a letter written out of desperation.