Puerto Rico Government Sharply Criticized Over Response to LGBTQ Murders

Dozens of activists and advocacy groups have sharply criticized the government of Puerto Rico over its response to the murders of several LGBTQ people on the island.

Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a Puerto Rican LGBTQ advocacy group, on Wednesday noted during a Zoom press conference that 10 LGBTQ Puerto Ricans have been murdered over the last 15 months. They include Alexa Negr√≥n Luciano, a homeless transgender woman who was killed in Toa Baja on Feb. 24.

Authorities last week found the bodies of Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaez, who were both trans women, in a car in Humacao that had been set on fire. Penélope D√≠az Ram√≠rez, who was also a trans woman, was killed in a Bayam√≥n jail on April 13.

Kevin Fret, a well-known gay trap artist, was murdered in San Juan's Santurce neighborhood on Jan. 10, 2019.

"They are hunting us," said Serrano during the press conference. "They are killing us."

Natasha Alor, a trans activist in Puerto Rico, said she is "tired of living in fear." Alor added many trans people in the U.S. commonwealth are afraid to leave their homes.

"It is very said that there are people in this country who are afraid to go out in the street just because of who they are," said Alor.

The press conference took place hours before the Puerto Rico Police Department announced the arrest of two men in connection with the murders of Velázquez and Pelaez.

Puerto Rico's hate crimes and nondiscrimination laws include both gender identity and sexual orientation, but prosecutors in the U.S. commonwealth rarely apply them. Serrano and other activists who participated in the press conference have repeatedly said Puerto Rican authorities' response to anti-LGBTQ hate crimes remains woefully inadequate.

The Broad Committee for the Search for Equity, a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups known by the acronym CABE, on Monday demanded a meeting with Puerto Rico Public Safety Director Pedro Janer and Puerto Rico Police Commissioner Henry Escalera. A press release that CABE released after Wednesday's press conference said activists plan to "demand answers on the status of the investigations (into the LGBTQ Puerto Ricans' murders), the plan for surveillance and prevention of these crimes, as well as a guarantee that the processes will be carried out in accordance with the protocols and free of prejudice."

"We are seeking justice for each one of the victims," said Serrano during the press conference.

Many of the activists who spoke also sharply criticized Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez over her administration's response to the murders.

Vázquez — a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party — in response to Negr√≥n's murder urged anyone with information to contact authorities. Vázquez in a tweet also said authorities "will work with the diligence and sensitivity the case merits."

The governor has not publicly responded to the murders of Velázquez, Pelaez and D√≠az. Vázquez has also not commented on the case of Yampi Méndez Arocho, a trans man who was killed in Moca on March 5.

Vázquez last August succeeded then-Gov. Ricardo Rossell√≥, who resigned after a series of homophobic and misogynistic messages between him and members of his administration became public. Vázquez was Puerto Rico's justice secretary before she became governor.

"Wanda Vázquez's silence is deafening," Serrano told the Washington Blade during Wednesday's press conference. "Her silence makes her complicit in these murders."

CABE spokesperson Carmen Milagros Vélez Vega also criticized Vázquez, noting the Puerto Rican government and its institutions have close ties with anti-LGBTQ fundamentalist churches.

"What they have done is promote hatred in this country and they have given people permission to use their hands to kill our brothers and sisters and to terrorize everyone," added Vélez, referring to the churches.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.