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Deadly assaults in Puerto Rico target gay and transgender people

By FRANCES ROBLES, frobles@MiamiHerald.com

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Francheska González looked into her attacker’s eyes as he kicked and punched and saw her own death.

“He kept saying, ‘Faggot! You have no right to exist!’’’ said González, a 41-year-old transsexual. “I’d cry and scream, ‘What happened? Why are you hitting me?’ He said: ‘For being like that.’’’

González’s vertebrae was broken and right breast implant ruptured in the April beating, making her a survivor of a series of deadly attacks against transgender and gay people in Puerto Rico. When transgender teenager Jorge Steven López was decapitated, dismembered and set ablaze in November 2009, it marked the start of what activists say is an escalating wave of hate crimes in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Eighteen gay or transgender people have been killed since then. Three were murdered in a single week earlier this month.

The murders have been committed in various areas across the island and by different perpetrators, which advocates say underscores their belief that widespread homophobia — not a serial killer — is the culprit.

“A lot of church people are not teaching peace and to love thy neighbor,” González said. “They are teaching to hate gays. For me, the people who do this are men who know they are gay and don’t want to be.”

The attacks come amid growing fundamentalist rhetoric on the island, where senior politicians are often influenced by conservative religious leaders who speak out publicly against homosexuals. Even as arrests are made and long sentences handed out, experts here say murders and harassment have continued, because the government has failed to implement anti-discrimination policy and remains largely mute on the disturbing trend.

In Puerto Rico, gay and transgender people say, it has become socially acceptable to despise them — especially men who dress as women.

“You have religious and political leaders saying: ‘Gays don’t matter; they are the devil and twisted,’” said Pedro Julio Serrano, the communications manager for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “That’s inciting violence. We have not seen anything like this here since the 1980s.”

In that decade, serial killer Angel Colón Maldonado, AKA the “Angel of the Bachelors,” was found guilty of killing six gay men. He was suspected of killing 27 more.

Serrano said today’s anti-gay rhetoric is largely led by Puerto Rican Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who makes it a point to ask senior government job candidates up for confirmation hearings whether they support gay marriage.

“Change will come to the Supreme Court… a Supreme Court that will defend the rights of the Puerto Rican family, traditional family values, not this twisted family some try to implement through legislation or jurisprudence,” he said at a judicial confirmation hearing.

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Pastor Wanda Rolón made headlines when she posted a Facebook status update saying that “RM” was going to “send Puerto Rico to hell.” Later, she denied that she was comparing singer Ricky Martin to the devil, but lamented how the entertainer flaunts his homosexuality.

“I do not glorify that conduct,” she told Primera Hora newspaper. “I don’t glorify drug addicts, alcoholics.”

Rivera Schatz did not return repeated calls seeking comment. Rolón was traveling and unavailable, her church office said.

“The politicians are under the influence of these fundamentalists and their hate speech,” said Sophia Isabel Marrero Cruz, a transsexual activist who leads TTM, Transsexuals and Transgenders on the Move. “There is a pattern, and that threatening pattern is repetitive and escalating.”

Her organization launched a crime watch to protect LGBT people, who tend to hang out outdoors because of a lack of bars that accept them, she said. The patrol volunteers note the tag numbers of cars whose drivers harass cross-dressers, some of whom are sex workers and particularly at risk.

“We had complained already about the guy who killed Jorge Steven, and police did not take the case,” Marrero said. “There are people in the criminal justice system who really work hard on these cases, but police and judges need to be sensitized. People are prejudiced and allow themselves to be influenced by religious rhetoric.”

Although the prosecutor’s office in Puerto Rico has a solid track record of getting long prison sentences once killers have been caught, she said prosecutors have not once used existing hate crime legislation as an aggravating factor in prosecutions.

Puerto Rico’s top prosecutor said the hate crime law has not been applied because it’s a difficult element to prove and he fears that a case could collapse if enough evidence is not presented. Cops and prosecutors are being trained about sensitivity and how to gather such evidence, Department of Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza said.

“I’d rather have a first-degree murder conviction than see the case collapse because we failed to prove the killing was motivated by prejudice because the person was white, Puerto Rican, Dominican or lesbian,” Somoza said. “I’d rather have a bird in the hand then two flying around.”

His office’s special task force on hate crimes found there have been 23 murders of gays and transgender people in two years.

“We show 13 of those cases resolved, with seven people serving prison sentences and others awaiting trial. That is an excellent track record,” he said. “Of course the killings are worrisome, but we prosecute our cases regardless of the victim’s race, creed, gender or ideology.”

Somoza said he did not know why there had been so many gay and transgender killings. However, he noted last week that with 512 murders so far this year — 84 more than the same time last year — Puerto Rico is on its way to break an all-time record. The economy soured and drug trafficking rose, which played havoc with the crime rate, he said.

The Puerto Rico Police Department press office did not return repeated calls seeking comment. One police official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter said the incidents have all been isolated and do not appear to have been motivated by bias.

Some of the attackers — including the man who beat Francheska González — even said they had had romantic relationships with transsexuals. González’s attacker is out on bail pending trial.

In the López decapitation, the killer used what’s called the “gay panic” defense: the murder was committed in a fit of rage when the killer realized he was with a man.

López’ dismembered body was set ablaze and left on the side of the road in the city of Caguas, catapulting the issue of anti-gay and transsexual violence on the island to international news. The killer is serving a 99-year sentence.

“Jorge Steven is Puerto Rico’s Matthew Shepard,” Thomas Bryan Pico, an attorney who helps victims’ families navigate the criminal justice system, said referring to the gay Wyoming student whose killing inspired the 2009 federal hate crime legislation in the United States.

Yashira Candelario, a 35-year-old transgender hooker, said business on the streets of Santurce has slowed to a crawl since her friend Karlota Brown was found murdered three blocks from her house the week of June 5. Her death was followed by the murders of two gay men in other cities over the next 72 hours.

A suspect identified as someone who had harassed cross-dressers in the past was questioned but released when the witnesses did not make it to the police lineup.

“If the victims had been anybody else, more would have been done,” Candelario said. “For as much as people say the world has changed, society is just not ready to see people like us. They don’t understand that we are human beings too, and we have a right to live.”

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