Federal hate crime charges filed for the first time in Puerto Rico amidst wave of anti-LGBTQ violence
For the first time ever, federal hate crime charges have been filed in Puerto Rico as a result of the murder of two transgender women in the coastal city of Humacao. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and federal prosecutors have taken over the investigation of the incident that occurred on April 21.
The remains of Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos, 32, and Layla Pelaez Sánchez, 21, were found in a charred car on the morning of April 22. Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla, 21, and Sean Díaz de León , 19, have charged with their murder.
According to an affidavit released by the United States Department of Justice, Pagán and Díaz decided to kill the two women after they had sexual relations with them. The men were angered by the fact that the Velázquez and Pelaez did not inform them that they were transgender and therefore tricked them into leaving Pelaez’s home. Once the group was on the highway, Díaz shot and killed both Velázquez and Pelaez. The two men subsequently lit the car they were traveling in on fire in an attempt to destroy evidence.
A press release by the US Department of Justice reads that the two men have been charged with “carjacking and with using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence in connection with the death of two transgender individuals”. The two men could be sentenced to death if they are convicted.
On April 29, the two men were arrested and charged with the murder of Velázquez and Pelaez. Pagán and Díaz are the first people ever to be charged under the Mathew Sheppard and James Bird Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in 2009 which provides “protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation”. The namesakes of the act were victims of hate crimes themselves.
The vicious murder of Velázquez and Pelaez adds to a string of violence against transgender and non-binary citizens of Puerto Rico as well as other members of the LBQT+ community. The local organization, Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de Equidad (CABE), has raised much awareness surrounding the several crimes committed against members of the LBTBQ community in Puerto Rico. Carmen Milagros Vélez Vega, a spokesperson for CABE said that “The violence we are experiencing has its roots in the hateful rhetoric and actions by fundamentalist politicians and religious leaders who incite violence, who persecute, demonize and attack LGBTQ people”
The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ organization, released a statement condemning the continued violence against the LGBTQ community in Puerto Rico. The HRC wrote in its May statement “There have been at least 10 deaths of LGBTQ individuals in the past 15 months on the island. This is the highest number of killings that Puerto Rico has seen in a decade. Five deaths have transpired over the past two months alone. These most recent deaths represent the majority of at least nine violent deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people that have happened in the US this year.”
Even though the two men have already confessed to the murders, they have both pleaded not guilty to the charges. They have both been remanded without bail and are currently awaiting trial in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Guaynabo.
Given the gravity of the case and the possibility of the death penalty being implemented, both defendants have been assigned specially trained death penalty attorneys. Although Article II, Section 7 of the Puerto Rican Constitution inhibits the use of the death penalty, Pagán and Díaz’s case falls under federal jurisdiction where the death penalty is an option.
Although advocacy groups are encouraged by the developments in the case, they are asking for the death penalty to not be administered. CABE spokesperson Osvaldo Burgos said that “The death penalty does not resolve anything. We are not going to put an end to criminality by injecting violence.”
This case is far from over and a conviction is not guaranteed; however, it acts as a historic moment for Puerto Rico’s judicial system and the many advocacy groups working to protect the LGBTQ citizens of Puerto Rico.