The same week the Obama administration made historic moves to combat human rights violations of LGBT global citizens, Puerto Rico is on the verge of turning back the clock.
Puerto Rican lawmakers are poised to vote on a revised penal code this week that includes a provision that would eliminate LGBT-specific protections from the island’s hate crimes law.
The Puerto Rico Senate late last month approved a provision that would eliminate sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ethnicity and religious beliefs from the hate crimes statute that was included in the penal code that lawmakers approved in 2004. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the amended penal code this week during an extraordinary legislative session that Gov. Luis Fortuño convened.
It is hard to imagine what has suddenly become so onerous about hate crimes protections enacted years ago that they must now be stricken from the books?
Particularly as the books seem to be the only place these laws actually exist. The Puerto Rican LGBT community has seen a sharp escalation of hate crimes—more than two dozen LGBT people have been murdered there since 2009. The population of Puerto Rico is approximately 4 million.
What they haven't seen is any inclination to address the rising violence. Puerto Rico's ACLU chapter reported in 2009:
Although the commonwealth has had sentencing guidelines since 2002 that give prosecutors and judges the ability to seek more severe punishment for hate crimes, prosecutors have never investigated a crime as a hate crime.
Only after the Puerto Rican ACLU helped flood their office with more than 2,000 calls and emails did the local Department of Justice finally agree to investigate the gruesome murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado as a hate crime. Mercado's body was found decapitated, dismembered and partially burned.
This was also reported at the time:
Investigator Angel Rodriguez was quoted in local media reports as saying, "When these type of people get into this and go out into the streets like this, they know this can happen to them."In September, the Department of Justice released a report that the New York Times characterized as a "blistering condemnation" of corruption in the Puerto Rico police force.
Investigators “uncovered troubling evidence” that law enforcement officers in Puerto Rico appear to routinely discriminate against people of Dominican descent and “fail to adequately police sex assault and domestic violence” cases — including spousal abuse by fellow officers.
The 116-page report included 133 recommendations for improvements including a suggestion that the police take hate crimes toward LGBT people more seriously. This is one way to solve the problem of unsolved hate crimes, but probably not what the DOJ had in mind.
Presumably, relaxing laws on violent crime was not among the DOJ's recommendations to address Puerto Rico's soaring murder rate. The Times reported 786 homicides by Sept. 2011, up 117 from the same time the previous year.
Lobbying efforts from the states have begun with New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and New York City Councilmembers Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rosie Mendez, Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer issuing a joint statement on Tuesday, urging the Puerto Rico House to vote it down.
"If Puerto Rico doesn't want to protect its residents from attacks, violence and murder, then the federal authorities need to step in and ensure the most basic rights of life and liberty are protected.".The Congressman asks Holder to consider "steps you can take to protect the communities that the ruling party in Puerto Rico has chosen to specifically put at risk." A pdf of the letter has been posted to Gutierrez's House website
Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act does apply to Puerto Rico, but there, as with the mainland, deference is given to local authorities to lead investigations. The contingency that the local authorities be unable—or unwilling—to protect minorities certainly seems to apply.
Sepulveda said, “I would hate to return home to a place where me and my people are not protected.”
Human Rights Campaign has also condemned this move.