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Teen's Murder Stuns Gays
by Blair Mishleau
2009-12-01

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The brutally murdered body of a 19-year-old gay man was found in the late evening of Nov. 13 in Puerto Rico. It has set off a storm of activism across Puerto Rico and the mainland United States.

Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was decapitated, partially burned and dismembered on an isolated street in Puerto Rico. He was a well-known member of the local gay community.

Juan A. Martinez Matos, 26, was charged with first-degree murder as well as three weapons violations in connection with Lopez's murder. His bail is set at $4 million.

LGBT community members are in shock over the violent murder and are angry at homophobia within the investigation. There is also concern as to whether the murder will be considered a hate crime.

The story, which garnered some media coverage in Puerto Rico, gained nationwide coverage once a CNN iReporter, Christopher Pagan, sent information to media outlets across America. iReporters are independent reporters who submit stories to CNN about issues that have not received enough media coverage.

According to Pagan, Lopez was found a few miles from his hometown, in an isolated road in a city named Cayey.

Mercado's murder comes at a powerful but saddening time for the LGBT community. Nov. 20 marked the third annual international Transgender Day of Remembrance in honor of all transgender victims of violence.

"As someone who grew up in Puerto Rico and has been very active in its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, this is a heart-wrenching moment, said Pedro Julio Serrano, Founder of Puerto Rico Para Todos in a press release by the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force.

The head investigating police officer, Angel Rodriguez, gave an offensive quote that has been repeated across media outlets.

"People who lead this type of lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen," Rodriguez said.

His quote has been used to support the claim that Puerto Rican authorities are not sensitive to the LGBT community.

"It is inconceivable that the investigating officer suggests that the victim deserved his fate, like a woman deserves rape for wearing a short skirt," said Puerto Rican gay activist Pedro Julio Serrano to PrimeraHora.com . "We demand condemnation of this investigator." After much media scrutiny, Rodriguez was pulled off of the case as head investigator, but he may still be involved with the case, according to the Puerto Rico Police Department.

"Juan Martinez apparently believes Jorge's sexual orientation and gender expression justify this horrific crime," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese in a press release. "It's clear, however, that prejudice and hate are the true motivations."

According to Lambda Legal, Puerto Rico has a hate crimes law, but they do not believe it has never been used to prosecute any crime involving sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Never in the history of Puerto Rico has a murder been classified as a hate crime," said Pagan. "Even though we have to follow federal mandates and laws, many of the laws in which are passed in the USA such as Obama's new bill [ the Matthew Shepard Act ] , do not always directly get practiced in Puerto Rico."

The recently passed the Matthew Shepard Act, which requires the FBI to help with investigations that may be considered hate crimes, applies to all of the U.S. including Puerto Rico.

Harry Rodriguez, an FBI spokesperson, confirmed that the Matthew Shepard Act would be enforced in the Puerto Rico.

"The FBI is monitoring this investigation with the police of Puerto Rico because there are federal civil-rights statutes that cover hate crimes," Rodgriguez said in a statement to Spanish-language media outlet Primer Hora.

Lopez had ambitions of becoming an important figure in the beauty and fashion worlds, according to Pagan.

"All [ of his friends and loved ones ] have said that all they can remember is laughing constantly with him and his charismatic persona," said Pagan. "He always dreamt of being an important figure. Well now Jorge is an icon, a messenger of change."

"We all first heard about Jorge on Saturday [ Nov. 14 ] on local [ Puerto Rico ] television," Pagan told Windy City Times. "The details were still not very descriptive. On Sunday there was no press whatsoever in Puerto Rico giving info on this case. I decided to take matters into my own hands to avoid this to be another hate crime swept under a rug of bigotry and silence.

"The religious fanaticism in Puerto Rico often plants the seed of hate. The government here waters that seed as much as they can.

"The local FBI is monitoring the case. All the indications that it is a hate crime, its still officially a murder, but the FBI has indicated that its not written in stone, it can change. It is still being investigated fully."

The defense for the crime may involve "gay panic," defense, according to the Human Rights Campaign. "Gay panic" is the panic of a homophobic straight individual when confronted with a gay person, which somehow leads to murder, according to the press release.

Judy Shepard—who lost her gay son, Matthew—in a murder that shocked America in 1998, is disappointed to see such murders continue.

"For another young person to lose their life and be taken from their family and community due to fear, prejudice and hatred is simply unacceptable," Shepard said. "Each of us who believe in freedom and equality must remain vocal, active, and unrelenting in calling for justice."

Shepard's son may be there in spirit to bring a stronger conviction to Matos. Time will tell if the act named after Matthew is used to aid in the case's investigation.

As for Chicago, local activist Robert Castillo told Windy City Times that it will make the Latino community stronger than ever: "It's helping to galvanize Latino gay groups and leaders here. This was someone's son that was murdered. You can't just let that go by without responding. I'm hoping the community will address gay and lesbian issues a little better."


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