Two transgender women who lived in New York were murdered while visiting their hometown in Puerto Rico on April 22 and a gender non-conforming prisoner on the island was found dead in a suspected slaying that happened on April 13, LGBTQ activist Pedro Julio Serrano told Gay City News on April 24.
The string of murders during the height of the coronavirus crisis came just weeks after a homeless trans woman, known as Alexa, was senselessly mocked and killed for using the women’s bathroom at a restaurant on the island.
Serena Angelique Velázquez, 32, of Queens, and Layla Pelaez, 21, of the Bronx, were found burned and shot to death inside a vehicle under a bridge on a highway on the eastern side of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican news outlet Primera Hora reported that Velázquez had traveled to the island in March and was slated to return home to Queens at the end of April. No arrests have been made at this point.
“At this moment we don’t know if they were burned alive or killed before being burned,” Serrano said in a phone interview. “That is part of the investigation. There was a video on Snapchat posted hours before the murder, and police are investigating a possible person of interest.”
Serrano said authorities on the island violated protocol by misgendering the pair of individuals during earlier stages of the investigation.
“They said there were two men found burned in a vehicle,” Serrano explained. “When they are members of the LGBTQ community, they need to not misgender anybody.”
Serrano was speaking to Gay City News about those murders just moments after he had learned about the death two weeks earlier of a gender non-conforming individual, Penelope Diaz, who was incarcerated at Bayamón Correctional Center.
Diaz was found dead in what appeared to be a hanging, Serrano said.
“They had symptoms of violence on their body so probably they were beaten to death,” Serrano said before adding he believes killers subsequently tried to stage the death as a suicide.
Nearly two weeks passed before Serrano found out about the case. He heard about it from someone who knew Diaz, and he then confirmed the death with their family. While further details surrounding the case remain unclear, Serrano said Diaz was not allowed to receive hormone treatment while incarcerated. It is also not known why there was a two-week gap between the time of their death and when the news started circulating.
The spike in deadly violence targeting transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in Puerto Rico has left a staggering death toll on the island. There have now been nine deaths of queer individuals, most of them transgender women, during the last 15 months, Serrano said.
The murders have drawn attention from transgender advocacy groups, including the National Center for Transgender Equality, which swiftly called for justice for Velázquez and Pelaez following their deaths. Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, who serves as the National Center for Transgender Equality’s deputy executive director for policy and action, called on the Puerto Rican government to take the crimes seriously, investigate them thoroughly, and maintain sensitivity in the proess.
“Transgender people should be able to live their lives without fear of violence or discrimination” Heng-Lehtinen said in a written statement. “It is up to all of us to call attention to this violence and to hold authorities accountable for keeping their communities safe for everyone.”
Serrano did not express strong confidence in local authorities solving the latest cases. Following Alexa’s death, he said, authorities may have botched the investigation by arresting some people of interest instead of first inviting them to come in and talk.
“They mishandled that investigation,” Serrano said. “That was against the protocol of police reform and that might have jeopardized the investigation.”
The island’s LGBTQ community, already impacted by devastating hurricanes, has remained resilient through a turbulent period dating back to last year. Now-former Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló stepped down following intense protests after Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism leaked homophobic and sexist chats between him and his top aides. In those chat conversations, officials described former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito as a “whore,” said out gay celebrity singer Ricky Martin “fucks men because women don’t measure up,” and made threats to “shoot up” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
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