Puerto Rico: Hate Crime Against Gay Teenager Causes Outrage

Nineteen year-old Jorge Steven Mercado dreamed about working in the fashion industry. He was also a volunteer in organizations advocating for HIV prevention and gay rights. But, last week his body was found dismembered, decapitated, and partially burned, in a rural area in Guavate, Cayey, Puerto Rico. Activists from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Puerto Rico immediately described this brutal slaying  as a hate crime. Not a single crime has been processed under the Puerto Rican Hate Crime Law since it was approved in 2002. Penalties are higher if the Hate Crime Law is applied.

Photo by Sylvar. Reprinted under CC License.

Photo by Sylvar. Reprinted under CC License.

Days after the murder, 26 year-old Juan Martínez Matos confessed. According to local news reports, Martínez Matos said he went looking for a prostitute in the streets of Caguas, Puerto Rico, when Steven approached him. Martínez Matos said he “didn't know” Steven Mercado was a man until they arrived at his apartment in an another town (the victim was allegedly dressed as a woman). Gay activists Ada Conde and Pedro Julio Serrano have publicly stated that the sector where Steven Mercado was picked up is mostly frequented by transsexual and transvestite men. Martínez Matos said he killed Steven in “self defense” after they got into a fight. He then mutilated his body, and left it in a desolated area miles away from his house. Martínez Matos also stated he hated homosexuals because he had been raped when he was in jail for committing domestic violence. Gay activists were outraged when the police officer in charge of the investigation said: “Someone like that, who does those kind of things, and goes out in public, knows full well that this might happen to him.” They have demanded the officer's immediate removal from the case. Martínez Matos has been charged with murder and bail was set at $4 million USD.

Since Puerto Rico is a United States territory, federal laws apply. Two Puerto Rican United States Congress Members from New York have asked for this crime to be prosecuted under new federal hate crimes laws. The Federal Investigations Bureau (FBI) is monitoring the investigation. In the 1980s the serial murderer Ángel Colón Maldonado, known as the “Angel of the Bachelors”, killed 27 homosexuals in the Island. Recently, gay actvists have also warned about another murder against a gay man in San Juan, the country's capital.

Bloggers have reacted to this terrible crime. The human rights actvists and spokesperson of the LGBT organization Puerto Rico para Tod@s (Puerto Rico for Everyone), Pedro Julio Serrano [ES], condemned the religious leaders’ and the politicians’ silence:

Ante uno de los asesinatos más horrendos en la historia del País, el silencio ensordecedor de los líderes políticos y religiosos es una vergüenza de marca mayor. Les tiene que dar vergüenza de no hacer expresiones de solidaridad hacia la familia y allegados de Jorge Steven. Les tiene que dar vergüenza de no solidarizarse con las comunidades lésbica, gay, bisexual y transgénero (LGBT) ante el odio que produjo este crimen. Les tiene que dar vergüenza de no condenar la homofobia en este caso y las acciones prejuiciadas del agente investigador. Les tiene que dar vergüenza que han olvidado su obligación constitucional de instrumentar la igualdad para todos los seres humanos.

We are before one of the most horrendous murders committed in the history of this country, therefore the silence of political and religious leaders is even more shameful. They should feel embarrassed for not expressing their solidarity with Jorge Steven’s family and friends. They should feel embarrassed for not expressing solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community for the hatred that this crime has produced. They should feel embarrassed for not condemning the police officer in charge of the investigation. They should feel embarrassed for having forgotten their constitutional duty of defending equality for every human being.

In Saadaya [ES], Hiram, a Puerto Rican blogger from Chicago, lamented the long history of homophobia in Puerto Rico:

Pero el crimen no es lo único chocante. Nada sucede en un vacío: todo tiene raíces, todo tiene causas y efectos, y Puerto Rico como sociedad ha nutrido por generaciones el odio hacia los gays, lo han nutrido los líderes cristianos desde los púlpitos, los padres al criar a sus hijos, las autoridades policíacas y jurídicas […] y los políticos que tienen un convenio ilícito con las iglesias que no es muy bien disimulado. En una isla así, que quepa en el pecho de un muchacho matar a otro por ser gay del modo tan mórbido en que lo hizo no debería ser chocante: es algo que Puerto Rico llevaba tiempo cocinando.

But the crime is not the only shocking thing. Nothing happens in a vacuum: Everything has its roots, its cause and effect. Puerto Rico as a society has promoted hatred against the gay community to generations of people. Christian leaders have promoted hatred from their pulpits. Parents have instilled hatred in their children. Law and order agencies…and politicians have an illicit agreement with the church that they do not conceal very well. It should not shock us that in an Island like this, a man can murder another man for being gay in such a horrendous way. This hatred has been brewing in Puerto Rico for a long time.

This Sunday there will be a vigil in New York City in remembrance of Jorge Steven Mercado.

*Photo by Sylvar republished under a CC License. Please visit Sylvar's photostream on Flickr.


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