The news of the murder and decapitation of a gay teenager last weekend in Puerto Rico—in what would be the island’s first hate crime—has been met with shock and dismay in a community that takes great pride in its acceptance of difference. There has been widespread condemnation of the crime and a vigil is planned for tonight in solidarity with the gay community. Activists say it would be the first case in this U.S. territory to invoke a law covering crimes based on sexual orientation. We are saddened and horrified by a crime that we would not have thought possible on our home island.
The decapitated, dismembered, and partially burned body of 19-year-old college student Jorge Steven López Mercado was discovered Friday in the central mountain town of Cayey. López, a popular young man, was widely known as a volunteer for organizations advocating HIV prevention and gay rights, and activists are planning remembrance vigils for him in cities including San Juan, New York and Chicago. A group in the United States has started a Facebook page called “Justice for Jorge Steven Lopez — End Hate Crimes” and are urging Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno to investigate.
A suspect was arrested earlier this week, and a prosecutor who interrogated him concluded the killing was a hate crime, police Col. Hector Agosto said. The detective working on the investigation has come under fire for insinuating in a press conference that the vistim’s lifestyle naturally placed him at risk. The prosecutor, José Bermúdez Santos, said the suspect met López while looking for women Thursday night in an area known for prostitution. Bermúdez said the suspect confessed to stabbing López, who was dressed as a woman, after discovering he was a man. “He has a deep-seated rage,” Bermúdez said in remarks reported by the newspaper El Nuevo Día. Martínez, who was arrested at his home in Cayey, was charged last night with first-degree murder, weapons violations and hiding evidence, prosecutor Yaritza Carrasquillo said. CNN cited Telemundo and other local reports saying Martínez had told authorities he had picked up López on the street, thinking he was a woman. When he realized López was a man, the reports said, he flashed back to an incident when he was sexually assaulted in prison, and a conflict between the two led to Lopez’s death.
The question of whether he will also be charged under Federal hate crime laws remains open. A suspect convicted of a hate crime offense as part of another crime automatically faces the maximum penalty for the underlying crime. For a murder charge, that would be life in prison, as there is no death penalty in Puerto Rico. A 2002 hate crime law in Puerto Rico has not been applied to cases involving sexual orientation or gender identity despite calls to use it more aggressively, said Pedro Julio Serrano, a Puerto Rico native who is a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Serrano said he has identified at least 10 slayings on the island over the last seven years that should have been investigated as hate crimes, including some in which the victims were sex workers.
Two U.S. Congress members from New York, who are of Puerto Rican origin, have suggested prosecuting the case under new federal hate crimes legislation that extended coverage to sexual orientation. President Obama signed it last month. The FBI is monitoring the investigation, and Lymarie Llovet Ayala, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Juan, said Wednesday that federal prosecutors are considering whether to take on the case.
Puerto Rico has some history of violence against gays. In the 1980s, the island was terrorized by serial killer Angel Colón Maldonado, known as “The Angel of the Bachelors,” who was linked to the murders of 27 homosexual people and is serving life in prison. But Colón Maldonado’s crimes are generally seen as the work of a madman in an island known as a welcoming place for gays, particularly in comparison with more socially conservative Caribbean islands where homosexuals often live in hiding. “The people of Puerto Rico are very inclusive and accepting of differences,” said Serrano. “I think these kinds of crimes show the ugly side of homophobia, but it’s a minority of people that are willing to be so violent in expressing their prejudice,”
Serrano said a protest against homophobia was planned for Thursday outside Puerto Rico’s Capitol.
For original report go to http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/11/18/puerto.rico.gay.teen.slain/index.html