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The bodies of two transgender women were found inside a charred car in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, reigniting longstanding concerns among activists that police on the island aren’t doing enough to curb anti-LGBTQ violence.
The two women’s bodies were found early Wednesday morning after someone called 911 to report a burned out car on a desolate road in Humacao, on the island’s eastern coast, according to Capt. Teddy Morales, the chief of criminal investigations for the Puerto Rico police in Humacao.
Pedro Julio Serrano, an LBGTQ activist, identified the two women as 21-year-old Layla Peláez and 32-year-old Serena Angelique Velázquez, two women from New York City who had recently returned to the island for a temporary period of time and were scheduled to fly back later this month.
Police say they have determined the manner of death to be homicide, but are awaiting autopsy results to determine the cause of death, reports the New York Times.
Morales said investigators are trying to identify two men who partied with the women at one of their homes on Tuesday night.
The men were captured on photos on one of the women’s social media accounts, and police are checking local security cameras for additional footage that could help in identifying the men.
Morales said the investigation is in its early stages, and that it is too soon to say whether the murders constitute hate crimes.
“I can’t just say this is a hate crime from the scene,” he said. “We need to know who killed them, why did he kill, and what were the motivations to say this was a hate crime.”
Serrano noted that eight LGBTQ people had been killed in Puerto Rico over the past 15 months, with four transgender people being killed in the past two months.
In February, a homeless transgender woman, Neulisa Luciano Ruiz, also known as Alexa, was shot to death in Toa Alta, P.R., after a customer at McDonald’s alleged that she had used a mirror to peer into a stall in the women’s restroom.
Police found no evidence that Alexa had committed any wrongdoing, but she was later hunted down by a group of people who posted video of her killing on social media.
In March, Yampi Méndez Arocho, a 19-year-old transgender man, was shot to death in Moca, P.R., five hours after he was allegedly assaulted by a woman, prompting his mother to call police.
“This is an epidemic of violence, anti-LGBTQ violence that has resurfaced in Puerto Rico,” Serrano told the Times. “We haven’t seen this type of violence in this quantity in a very long time — I would say 10 years.”
Serrano expressed skepticism about how police and prosecutors would respond to the murders, noting that convictions under Puerto Rico’s hate crime law are rare.
He and other activists say they are concerned that negligence and homophobia, on the part of law enforcement, may hamper the ability to identify the suspects and obtain a conviction.
“We are asking the police to thoroughly, immediately, and transparently investigate these vile and atrocious murders,” Ivana Fred, a local LGBTQ activist said. “Trans people deserve to live in peace, with equity and freedom.”
Puerto Rico Attorney General Dennise Longo Quiñones insisted that the investigation into the murders would be thorough, noting that her office was working closely with the Puerto Rico Bureau of Police to identify the women’s killers and their motive.
“Our investigation will include addressing any discriminatory animus that would qualify the crime as a hate crime, conduct which would be considered an aggravating sentencing factor in the prosecution of the underlying offenses,” Quiñones said. “We remain committed to bring justice to all victims of violent crimes in the island.”
Velázquez and Peláez are believed to be the seventh and eight transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals killed in the United States this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Serena and Layla, like us all, had family, dreams, hopes — and they did not deserve to die,” Tori Cooper, the director for community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative, said in a statement. “Transgender and gender-nonconforming people, especially women of color, are too often the victims of a toxic mix of transphobia, racism and misogyny.”
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