April 23, 2020 at 12:51 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Two transgender women murdered in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade
(Image by Nicolas Raymond; courtesy Flickr)

Two transgender women were murdered in Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

Primera Hora, a Puerto Rican newspaper, reported authorities found Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaez’s bodies in a car under a bridge in Humacao, a municipality on the island’s southeast coast.

Reports indicate Velázquez and Pelaez had been shot. El Nuevo Día, another Puerto Rican newspaper, notes the car in which Velázquez and Pelaez were found was set on fire with their bodies inside.

Captain Teddy Morales of the Puerto Rico Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Unit in Humacao told Primera Hora that detectives are trying to identify and interview those who may have seen Velázquez and Pelaez before they were killed. Morales also said investigators have not identified a possible motive.

El Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican LGBTQ advocacy groups known by the acronym CABE, on Wednesday urged authorities to investigate the murders as hate crimes.

“We urge the police to adequately, immediately and with sensitivity investigate these vile and atrocious murders of Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaez,” said CABE spokesperson Ivana Fred in a press release.

Velázquez and Pelaez are among the four trans people who have been murdered in Puerto Rico since the beginning of the year.

Alexa, a trans woman who was homeless, was brutally murdered in the municipality of Toa Baja on Feb. 24 hours after police responded to a report that she was “peeping” on people in a fast food restaurant’s restroom. Yampi Méndez Arocho, a trans man, was killed in the municipality of Moca on March 5.

Anti-LGBTQ violence is commonplace in Puerto Rico, even though the U.S. commonwealth’s hate crimes law includes gender identity and sexual orientation. CABE in its press release notes eight LGBTQ Puerto Ricans have been murdered over the last 15 months.

Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, another Puerto Rican advocacy group, and other activists with whom the Washington Blade regularly speaks say Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017, made LGBTQ Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable to violence and discrimination. These same activists also maintain the Puerto Rican authorities and the island’s government have not done enough to address anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

“Four members of the trans community have been murdered in Puerto Rico within the past two months,” tweeted former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, on Wednesday. “The community demands that the police department seriously investigate these heinous murders.”

Governor Wanda Vázquez in response to Alexa’s murder urged anyone with information to contact the Puerto Rico Police Department. Vázquez in a tweet also said authorities “will work with the diligence and sensitivity the case merits.”

Vázquez last August succeeded then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló after his resignation over a series of homophobic and misogynistic messages between him and members of his administration that became public. Vázquez, who was Puerto Rico’s justice secretary before she became governor, on Wednesday appeared on “La Comay,” a Puerto Rican television show hosted by a large puppet with the same name, to discuss her administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

WAPA, a Puerto Rican television station, in 2013 cancelled the program after a producer made homophobic comments about a man who was murdered prompted a boycott. “La Comay” currently airs on Mega TV, another Puerto Rico-based television station.

“We recognize that there is an emergency due to the coronavirus, but we cannot forget the other emergency that causes violence against LGBTTIQ people and the possible hate crimes that have occurred over the last 15 months,” said CABE spokesperson Osvaldo Burgos in their organization’s press release. “The police have an obligation to disclose the status of the investigations into at least seven murders, one undetermined death and several attacks that have left LGBTTIQ people injured since January 2020.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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