Authorities in Puerto Rico have made a pair of arrests in the murders of two transgender women from New York whose burned bodies were found on the island April 22.
Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla, 21, and Sean Díaz de León, 19 were arrested on April 29, but they have yet to face official charges, according to The New York Times. The arrests came one week to the day after 21-year-old Layla Peláez, of the Bronx, and 32-year-old Serena Angelique Velázquez, of Queens, were found in a burned car under a bridge on a remote road in Humacao, which is on the eastern side of the island. The women had been visiting their hometown in Puerto Rico at the time of their deaths.
Bonilla confessed to having a role in the killings, Puerto Rican LGBTQ activist Pedro Julio Serrano told Gay City News on May 1, and de Leon turned himself in.
While it was previously reported that the women were also found to have been shot, that detail is not confirmed, Serrano said. Police were awaiting autopsy results that they hoped would provide more information about how the women died.
Serrano told Gay City News in a text message that the pair of suspects “planned the murders, they took them for a ride to a lonely spot, and burned them alive.”
Bonilla and de León were with the women hours before they were found dead and they were featured in a recording on one of the women’s social media accounts, investigators said. Authorities are utilizing surveillance video footage and “scientific evidence” to make their case.
The Times reported that Captain Teddy Morales, who leads criminal investigations in the Humacao region, said the case is being classified as a hate crime because authorities determined the men were socializing with the women and set out to kill them when they learned they were transgender. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is assisting in the case.
Following the arrests, Serrano expressed some cautious optimism that justice will be done but maintained his calls for a thorough probe of the case and reminded authorities to be fair in their prosecution.
“These arrests are a step in the right direction, but these murders have to be prosecuted as hate crimes,” Serrano said. “We must warn that Puerto Rico prohibits the death penalty in our constitution and we call upon federal authorities in Puerto Rico not to impose the death penalty on this case or any case. An eye for an eye will make us all blind.”
Serrano is also maintaining a spotlight on other murders on the island, where more than a half-dozen LGBTQ people have been slain in the past year. He has often voiced concerns that probes into the deaths of LGBTQ individuals on the island have either been botched by authorities or not investigated as thoroughly as possible.
“We urge the government to finish the investigations in the other seven murders of LGBTQ people on the island and serve justice for all of them,” Serrano stressed on May 1.
Police have yet to make headway in the February murder of a homeless transgender woman known as Alexa, who was mocked and hunted down after using the women’s restroom at a restaurant. Serrano told Gay City News that cops “mishandled that investigation” by rushing to arrest people of interest before inviting them to first come in for questioning.
In another recent case, Serrano said he learned about the April 13 death of Penelope Diaz, a gender non-conforming individual who was incarcerated at Bayamón Correctional Center. According to Serrano, Diaz died in what appeared to be a hanging, but activists are concerned that they were actually murdered prior to the scene being staged to appear as if they died by suicide. Diaz was not allowed to receive hormone treatment while incarcerated, Serrano asserted.
The initial investigation of the Peláez and Velázquez killings, too, started off on shaky footing when authorities initially misgendered them, Serrano said.
“They said there were two men found burned in a vehicle,” Serrano said on April 24 before any arrests were made. “When they are members of the LGBTQ community, they need to not misgender anybody.”
Tensions were already high following the explosive scandal last year that led to the ousting of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who was found to be engaging in chats laced with anti-LGBTQ and sexist language. The wave of murders of queer people on the island will likely continue to frustrate queer activists until justice is served for all those who have lost their lives.
“We cannot continue to be ignored like our lives don’t mean anything or have no value for the government of Wanda Vázquez who has not acknowledged this epidemic of anti-LGBTQ violence in Puerto Rico,” Serrano said of the island’s new governor. “We are as Puerto Rican as everyone else.”
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