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LGBTQ activists in Puerto Rico are asking federal authorities not to seek the death penalty in the trial of two men charged with the murders of two transgender women on the island.
“Revenge is not synonymous with justice,” Pedro Julio Serrano, a spokesman for CABE, the Broad Committee for the Search for Equity, an LGBTQ Puerto Rican group, said in a statement. “Our Constitution expressly prohibits the death penalty and our people reaffirm that maxim. … We demand justice for Serena Velázquez and Layla Peláez, but we do not want to take anyone’s life.”
Osvaldo Burgos, another CABE spokesman, said the organization opposes the death penalty “in all cases, without exception, regardless of the crime in question, the characteristics of the offender, and the method of execution used by the State.”
“The death penalty violates the right to life and it is the most extreme form of punishment, cruel, inhuman and degrading,” Burgos said. “The death penalty does not solve anything.”
The calls not to seek the death penalty came after the FBI arrested two men in relation to the murders of transgender women Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos and Layla Pelaez Sánchez. The women’s bodies had been found in the remains of a charred car on the side of the road in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on April 22.
Last Friday, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was bringing charges against Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla, 21, and Sean Díaz de León, 19, for “carjacking” and “using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence” in relation to the women’s deaths. Both men are in federal custody.
In its announcement, the U.S. Department of Justice noted that each of the charges is punishable by death or imprisonment “for any number of years up to life.”
While the investigation into the women’s death remains ongoing, an FBI special agent claimed in an affidavit that Pagán and Díaz’s actions violated the federal Hate Crimes Act.
According to the affidavit, Pagán told FBI agents that he and Díaz had planned to go on a double date with the two women on April 21. Before leaving, Díaz consumed two narcotics, Pali and Zubuzon, and went back inside his house to retrieve a 9mm Glock pistol, which he carried inside a black man-purse.
The two men met with the two women, and began hanging out, socializing and smoking marijuana. Pagán then had sex with Velázquez, while Díaz took Peláez into a bedroom and had sex with her. Díaz later told Pagán that Peláez was transgender, and said he wanted to kill her for not disclosing that prior to them having sex, according to the affidavit.
Peláez tried to de-escalate the situation, while Díaz cussed at her and called her names. He then told Pagán that Velázquez was also transgender, and suggested they kill the women for “deceiving them,” the FBI special agent said in the affidavit.
Peláez reportedly tried to calm down the men, suggesting they get some more marijuana and talk. She gave her car keys to Pagán so he could drive, and sat in the back with Díaz to try and talk to him some more. As they were driving, Díaz shot and killed both women and asked Pagán where they could dispose of the bodies. Pagán drove to Humacao, where the men abandoned the car, filled it with trash to make it more flammable, and set it on fire.
The men were later identified by people in the neighborhood who recognized them from a Snapchat video that Peláez had recorded earlier in the night.
Velázquez and Peláez are among 10 LGBTQ individuals killed in Puerto Rico over the past 15 months, and among five transgender people killed in Puerto Rico over the course of the past two months. While LGBTQ advocates have praised the arrests of Pagán and Díaz, they are also demanding that police investigate and pursue charges in the remaining LGBTQ homicides, seven of which remain unsolved.
Furthermore, Carmen Milagros Vélez Vega, a CABE spokeswoman, said that local politicians and the island’s religious communities bear responsibility for anti-gay rhetoric, which activists say fosters an environment in which LGBTQ people’s lives are less valued and violence against them is condoned.
“These hate crimes do not occur in a vacuum,” Vélez said in a statement. “Behind them is the homophobic and fundamentalist discourse that our LGBTTIQ+ communities are worth less, and that, in some way, we are criminals, too.”
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