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Two arrested in alleged hate crime killing of transgender women in Puerto Rico

Police say they arrested the suspects in eastern Puerto Rico a week after two trans women were found there fatally shot in a burnt-out car.
Tropical Storm Karen's Rains Reach Puerto Rico After Earthquake
An empty street in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 24, 2019. /Bloomberg via Getty ImagesGabriella N. Baez / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Two men have been arrested in Puerto Rico in the shooting death of two transgender women whose bodies were found last week in a burned-out car.

The two suspects, Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla, 21 and Jose Díaz De Léon, 19, were arrested Wednesday, according to the Negociado de la Policía de Puerto Rico, the island’s state-level police force.

El Vocero reported that the two men were tracked down through fingerprint evidence found at the scene and cellphone tracing. The newspaper said FBI had assisted in the investigation. The bureau declined to confirm or deny that, "to protect the integrity of any possible investigative effort."

The two victims, Serena Angelique Velázquez, 32, and Layla Peláez Sánchez, 21, were found dead in a car in Humacao, a town on the island’s east coast, early on April 22. The women had been shot, and the vehicle burned.

According to local news site Primera Hora, Capt. Teddy Morales of the Criminal Investigation Corps of Humacao said that the motive was “revenge” and that the killings were being investigated as a hate crime.

Puerto Rican LGBTQ groups, like Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de Equidad (CABE), have been raising alarms about a deteriorating security situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people on the island after the February murder of a transgender woman was filmed and published online.

“Five trans people were murdered in the past two months,” Pedro Julio Serrano, a spokesman for CABE, told NBC News. "Ten LGBTQ people have been killed in 15 months. Enough!”

“We cannot continue to be ignored like our lives don’t mean anything or have no value," Serrano said, lamenting what he said is a lack of acknowledgement from the government about the "epidemic of anti-LGBTQ violence" on the island. “We are as Puerto Rican as everyone else.”

Another CABE spokesperson, Carmen Milagros Vélez Vega, said in a statement that Puerto Rico’s rash of violence “has its roots in the hateful rhetoric and actions by fundamentalist politicians and religious leaders who incite violence, who persecute, demonize and attack LGBTQ people.”

In a statement Thursday, the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, also decried the “dramatic” increase in anti-LGBTQ violence in Puerto Rico.

“There is a crisis facing LGBTQ people in Puerto Rico” said HRC President Alphonso David. “This violence must end. Each of the 10 people who have been killed had a family, friends and a community. When we lose someone, especially under violent circumstances, it leaves a long trail of unshakeable trauma."

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