Federal Officials to Conduct Hate Crime Trainings in Puerto Rico

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Tuesday March 13, 2012

EDGE has learned that the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will conduct training sessions on hate crimes for Puerto Rican law enforcement officials.

A DOJ spokesperson confirmed that prosecutors and investigators with the Puerto Rico Department of Justice will attend these trainings, but did not immediately provide specific details about where and when they will take place. Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said they will take place next month.

The FBI will meet with LGBT activists and other community representatives in Hato Rey later today to discuss the federal hate crimes law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The DOJ's Division of Community Services will also hold two listening sessions in San Juan today and on Thursday to discuss strategies to prevent hate crimes on the island.

These meetings will take place less than two months after Sophia Isabel Marrero Cruz of Transexuales y Transgneros en Marcha (Transsexuals and Transgender People on the Move) and Dr. Scout, director of the Network for LGBT Health Equity at the Fenway Institute in Boston, met with federal DOJ and U.S. Health and Human Service officials in Washington, D.C., to discuss continued violence and discrimination against LGBT Puerto Ricans. The FBI met with Serrano last June following the deaths of three LGBT Puerto Ricans within 72 hours.

DOJ officials did not respond to EDGE's repeated requests for specific information about these meetings. Scout said that the officials with whom he and Marrero met in the nation's capital in late January seemed genuinely interested in listening to their concerns.

"You really got a sense that they were just kind of trying to figure out what they could to address the issue and they would come back with specific activities," Scout told EDGE shortly after the meeting.

Marrero agreed.

"We've approached the local FBI for assistance and were told they could not get involved. I was so relieved in the DOJ meeting when we learned that was incorrect, the FBI can and should assist," she told EDGE earlier on Wednesday. "Now to know they've followed up with plans to come train the local FBI on hate crimes is really great.

More than two dozen LGBT people have been killed in Puerto Rico since gay teenager Jorge Steven Lpez Mercado's decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body was found along a remote roadside near Cayey in Nov. 2009.

Puerto Rico's hate crimes law includes both sexual orientation and gender identity, but activists have long complained that prosecutors have failed to apply them. The Puerto Rico Senate last November approved a provision that would eliminate LGBT-specific protections from the hate crimes statute that was included in a revised penal code that lawmakers approved in 2004. Governor Luis Fortuo, who has faced scathing criticism over his failure to publicly speak out against anti-LGBT violence on the island, told reporters a few days after lawmakers approved the proposed amendments that he supports the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the hate crimes law.

The federal DOJ also cited an inadequate response to hate crimes as among the Puerto Rico Police Department's numerous deficiencies in a damning report it released last September.

"[These meetings are] another step in the right direction," said Serrano.

Scout pointed out the amount of time he said it took federal officials to speak with those Puerto Ricans who have been most directly impacted by violence and discrimination on the island. He welcomed these meetings, but stressed they are part of a broader response.

"For too long it seems like justice officials just do not care about these crimes, let's hope this the beginning of a new day," added Marrero.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.