In the past year and a half, 18 LGBT individuals have been killed in Puerto Rico. Those murders include a frightening surge in violence over the past week, in which three people were found murdered in the span of 36 hours.
"We haven't seen this spike in violence against LGBT people since the '80s, when we had a serial killer who killed 27 gay men," said Pedro Julio Serrano, communications manger for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force who's currently working from the island.
The details of the crimes are grim, according to a press release from the Task Force. On Saturday, June 4, Alejandro Ponce Ponce was found stabbed to death. Then on Monday, Karlota Gómez Sánchez, a transgender woman, was shot to death in Santurce. On Tuesday, Ramón Salgado was found dead near a highway in Humacao. The New Civil Rights Movement has compiled a list of all 18 victims over the past year and a half. That list includes the high-profile murder of 19-year-old Jorge Steven López Mercado, whose dismembered body was found alongside a desolate road in November 2009. Though a suspect was eventually convicted in that case, authorities have been much slower to investigate similar crimes.
In the wake of these attacks, LGBT activists and allies on the island and in the mainland United States are rallying to address both the short and long term crises that face Puerto Rico's queer community. First, they're calling for authorities to investigate the crimes under the island's decade-old hate crimes law, which includes protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Second, they're calling for an end to anti-gay rhetoric from some of the island's high-ranking conservative lawmakers and religious leaders, who activists allege are inciting a climate of hate.
The political climate has grown considerably more hostile for LGBT individuals in recent years. In 2010, Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño aggressively worked to strengthen the island's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But activists on the island say that's just the most formal effort in a wide-ranging attack against the island's queer community.
"Part of the problem is we have a government that's been silent on these murders," said Serrano. "The president of the Senate has called LGBT people 'twisted' and 'mentally ill' and that incites violence." He added: "Also we have religious leaders that have been using language that also incites that violence, and we hold them accountable for these crimes as well."
Notably, after Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin came out as gay, he was met with considerable hostility from the island's top religious leaders. Luis Aponte Martínez, Archbishop Emeritus of San Juan de Puerto Rico, called on the singer to "not promote homosexuality," according to Latina.com.
"I beg him, for the love of his children (for whom I imagine he wants the best), that he [Ricky Martin] try to set an example of the great values we all share to our youth--especially in regards to sex," the archbishop said. Martin had previously released a powerful statement against homophobia on the island in which he called hate crimes "unacceptable."
"Puerto Rico is a place of love, acceptance and inclusion and these few people with hateful rhetoric against LGBT individuals are killing us," said Serrano. "Even though we are suffering and this is heart wrenching, the love of the families and the people and all the funerals have been filled with hundreds of people--that tells you where PR is, not where the leaders wants us to be."
Some family members of the those who were slain have also spoken out. Lopez Mercado's mother, Miriam Mercado, spoke shortly before her son's funeral. "When my son told me he was gay, I told him, 'Now, I love you more.' I want to tell the world that hatred is not born with human beings, it is a seed that is planted by adults and is fostered creating a climate of intolerance and violence. We must change our ways and understand that anyone ... could have been my son. And I want everybody to know that Jorge Steven was a very much loved son."