A Puerto Rico tourism ad featuring adventure-seekers zipping through a lush jungle canopy and pristine white sand beaches ran on a Washington, D.C. television station on a recent chilly afternoon. Millions of winter-weary tourists from around the world flock to the Caribbean island each year, but there is trouble in paradise.
Nearly two dozen LGBT Puerto Ricans have been murdered since Jorge Steven López Mercado's decapitated, dismembered, and partially burned body was found dumped along a remote roadside in November 2009. Ashley Santiago, Alejandro Torres Torres, and Karlota Gómez Sánchez are also among those whose names have been added to this grim list since the gay teenager's gruesome death sent shockwaves around the world. It would appear obvious that Puerto Rican authorities have a responsibility to protect the island's LGBT residents who continue to live in fear. The reality on the ground, however, is far different.
Instead of strengthening existing laws designed to protect LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable populations, the Puerto Rico Senate last month passed a proposed provision to the island's penal code that would eliminate sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, and ethnicity from the hate crimes law. Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz backs the measure, while Pastor Milton Picón, president of Morality in Media de Puerto Rico, suggested to a local newspaper on Dec. 8 that LGBT-inclusive hate crimes laws normalize homosexuality.
A damning, 116-page U.S. Department of Justice Report in September on the Puerto Rico Police Department cited an inadequate response to hate crimes as among the PRPD's endemic deficiencies. The Puerto Rico Department of Justice's own statistics indicate that prosecutors have not convicted anyone under the island's hate crimes law.
In response to the proposed provision, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez urged Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a federal task force to investigate and prosecute hate crimes in Puerto Rico. New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in San Juan, was far more blunt.
"The Puerto Rican government is creating a dangerous environment for those who have been and potentially could be attacked or even killed solely on the basis of their identity without any additional penalties for the perpetrators," she said in a statement released along with those from New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and other elected officials on Dec. 7. "This strategy to de-classify hate violence directed against LGBT Puerto Ricans and ethnic groups as a separate crime cannot stand. As a Puerto Rican committed to human rights and equality for all under the law, I will not stand silent to this injustice."
Governor Luis Fortuño, who has faced scathing criticism over his continued silence around anti-LGBT violence in Puerto Rico from activists on the island and on the mainland, indicated to reporters on Dec. 9 that he supports the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the island's hate crimes law.
Has the international outcry over the draconian measure had some effect?
It remains unclear as to whether the proposed provision will remain in the revised penal code that the Puerto Rico House of Representatives is expected to consider sometime in January. Legislators certainly have an obligation to address the skyrocketing crime rates that continue to terrorize Puerto Ricans. These remedies, however, should never come at the expense of the island's most vulnerable residents.