Police in Puerto Rico have arrested two men in connection with the killings of two transgender women last week and are classifying the matter as a hate crime.
The bodies of Serena Angelique Velázquez, 32, and Layla Pelaez, 21, were found in a car under a bridge April 22 in the town of Humacao. Their car had been set on fire, and some reports said they had been shot. They were visiting from New York City.
Humacao police Wednesday arrested Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla, 21, and Sean Díaz de León, 19, in connection with the crime, but they have not been charged, The New York Times reports. Bonilla admitted he was involved in the killings, and de León turned himself in, Capt. Teddy Morales, head of criminal investigations for the department, told the paper Thursday. The police have turned the men over to the FBI, which has taken over the case.
“We are classifying it as a hate crime because they were socializing with the victims, and once they found out they were transgender women, they decided to kill them,” Morales added. He said the men appeared on a recording on one of the women’s social media accounts and that security camera footage and other “scientific evidence,” which he declined to detail, tied them to the crime.
Velázquez and Pelaez were the third and fourth trans people to die by violence in Puerto Rico this year and the eighth and ninth in the U.S. as a whole. In February, Alexa Negrón Luciano, a homeless trans woman, was shot to death in the Puerto Rican town of Toa Baja, hours after being reported to police for using a women’s restroom at a McDonald’s. In March, trans man Yampi Méndez Arocho was fatally shot in another town in the territory, Moca. Activists say at least 10 LGBTQ people have been murdered in Puerto Rico in the past 15 months.
Activists have also criticized Puerto Rico’s response to the crimes. The territory’s hate-crimes law covers acts motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but it is seldom used. And fundamentalist Christian churches, with their homophobic and transphobic dogma, are exerting influence on the government, LGBTQ advocates say.
“There are people in this country who are afraid to go out in the street just because of who they are,” Puerto Rican transgender activist Natasha Alor said during a Zoom press conference this week, the Washington Blade reports.
Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of LGBTQ group Rico Para Tod@s, used the press conference to denounce the island’s governor as well. “Wanda Vázquez’s silence is deafening,” he said, according to the Blade. “Her silence makes her complicit in these murders.”