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Puerto Rican activists demand hate-crime charges amid gay, lesbian and transgender slayings

By DANICA COTO, Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Activists are demanding that a series of killings of gays, lesbians and transgenders in Puerto Rico be treated as possible hate crimes, saying there is an alarming rate of violence against these groups on the U.S. island.

In the last year and a half, at least 18 such people have been killed, three of them just this week, but authorities refuse to treat the cases as bias crimes, Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of the gay rights group Puerto Rico for Everyone, said Thursday.

"It seems they have declared open hunting season against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual people," he said.

A 2002 hate crime law in Puerto Rico covers crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but it has only been invoked in one case. If someone is found guilty of a hate crime they automatically face the maximum sentence for the underlying offense. If the offense is murder, it means life in prison.

The island's attorney general created a special committee last year to investigate hate crimes, and the government recently appointed prosecutor Janet Parra to oversee hate crimes. Police are expected to name a liaison with the gay and lesbian community.

Neither Parra nor Police Chief Jose Figueroa Sancha returned messages seeking comment.

"These are tentative steps," Serrano said. "With the level of violence that we have, we have to take bigger steps."

The most recent victim, Carlos Alfredo Gomez, a transsexual known as Karlota, was shot to death Tuesday by someone driving along a street where he worked as a prostitute, police have said. No one has been arrested.

In late April, another transsexual, Francheska Gonzalez, was severely beaten by a man while leaving a gas station in the suburb of Rio Piedras.

"He began yelling insults at me," she said, adding that he hit her so hard he broke the implant in her right breast.

The suspect faces a June 29 hearing for an assault charge. Gonzalez wants him to be charged with a hate crime.

Late last year, two young men dressed in women's clothing were shot in the head and apparently run over by a car in the southern city of Juana Diaz. Also last year, the naked and battered body of a transgender woman, Ashley Santiago, was found in her home in the northern town of Corozal.

In a November 2009 case that sparked vigils in New York and Chicago, gay teenager Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found decapitated and partially burned in Cayey. The suspect has been charged with first-degree murder.

The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group, issued a statement Wednesday urging Puerto Rico's government and police to create a plan to address crimes against gays and lesbians.

"The alarming rate of violence ... cannot be tolerated," the group said.

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