The slaying of a gay teenager whose decapitated, partially burned body was found along a road in Puerto Rico last week is under investigation as a possible hate crime, a police official said Wednesday.
Activists say it would be the first case in this U.S. territory to invoke a law covering crimes based on sexual orientation.
The dismembered body of 19-year-old college student Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was discovered Friday in the interior town of Cayey. Lopez was widely known as a volunteer for organizations advocating HIV prevention and gay rights, and activists are planning remembrance vigils for him in cities including San Juan, New York and Chicago.
A suspect was arrested earlier this week, and a prosecutor who interrogated him concluded the killing was a hate crime, police Col. Hector Agosto said. No charges had been filed in the case as of Wednesday afternoon.
The prosecutor, Jose Bermudez Santos, said the suspect met Lopez while looking for women Thursday night in an area known for prostitution. Bermudez said the suspect confessed to stabbing Lopez, who was dressed as a woman, after discovering he was a man.
"He has a deep-seated rage," Bermudez said in remarks reported by the newspaper El Nuevo Dia.
A suspect convicted of a hate crime offense as part of another crime automatically faces the maximum penalty for the underlying crime. For a murder charge, that would be life in prison.
A 2002 hate crime law in Puerto Rico has not been applied to cases involving sexual orientation or gender identity despite calls to use it more aggressively, said Pedro Julio Serrano, a Puerto Rico native who is a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Serrano said he has identified at least 10 slayings on the island over the last seven years that should have been investigated as hate crimes, including some in which the victims were sex workers.
Two U.S. Congress members from New York, who are of Puerto Rican origin, have suggested prosecuting the case under new federal hate crimes legislation that extended coverage to sexual orientation. President Barack Obama signed it last month.
History of violence against gays
The FBI is monitoring the investigation, and Lymarie Llovet Ayala, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Juan, said Wednesday that federal prosecutors are considering whether to take on the case.
Puerto Rico has some history of violence against gays. In the 1980s, the island was terrorized by serial killer Angel Colon Maldonado, known as "The Angel of the Bachelors," who was linked to the murders of 27 homosexual people and is serving life in prison.
But the island also is known as a welcoming place for gays, particularly in comparison with more socially conservative Caribbean islands where homosexuals often live in hiding.
"The people of Puerto Rico are very inclusive and accepting of differences," said Serrano. "I think these kinds of crimes show the ugly side of homophobia, but it's a minority of people that are willing to be so violent in expressing their prejudice,"
Serrano said a protest against homophobia was planned for Thursday outside Puerto Rico's Capitol.