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Suspect arrested in brutal slaying of gay man in Puerto Rico

By Arthur Brice, CNN
Police say the body of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, 19, was found Friday.
Police say the body of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, 19, was found Friday.
  • NEW: Activist attributes ill will toward gays to some religious, political leaders' "hate rhetoric"
  • Puerto Rican gay community wants police to see if slaying was a hate crime
  • FBI is monitoring investigation and is prepared to offer help, agent says
  • Suspect, 27, was to attend Tuesday court hearing, which was postponed several times

(CNN) -- A suspect has been arrested in the slaying of a 19-year-old Puerto Rican man found Friday decapitated, dismembered and partially burned, police said Tuesday.

Members of the U.S. gay community are asking authorities to investigate whether the slaying was a hate crime because the victim, Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, was gay, said Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"The brutality of the slaying and the fact that he was openly gay leads us to believe it was very possibly a hate crime," Serrano said.

Authorities are investigating whether the killing involved sex, Guayama police Commander Hector Agosto Rodriguez told CNN affiliate WLII TV.

Guayama prosecutor Jose Bermudez identified the suspect as Juan A. Martinez, 26. Police had earlier described him as a 27-year-old man from the interior Puerto Rican town of Cayey.

Martinez was scheduled to attend a court hearing Tuesday night at which charges would be lodged, said Luis Bernier, a spokesman for the Guayama police district, which has jurisdiction in the case. The hearing was postponed several times throughout the day. Officials were waiting for a prosecutor from a nearby district, causing the delay, Bernier said.

The FBI was not directly involved in the investigation Monday, said FBI Agent Harry Rodriguez of the San Juan office.

"The FBI is monitoring this investigation by police in Puerto Rico," Rodriguez said. "Any assistance that the police requests or requires, we would be more than happy to provide."

Puerto Rican authorities may ask for help with forensics or other advanced investigative tools the FBI could provide, Rodriguez said.

The U.S. attorney's office, in consultation with local officials and other agencies, would determine if the slaying was a hate crime, which is a federal offense.

"It's at a very preliminary stage," said Lymarie Llovet, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, which means federal agencies have jurisdiction.

"There's the potential for a federal investigation," Rodriguez said.

The suspect was arrested Monday around 11:30 p.m. AST (10:30 p.m. ET) at his home in the Mogote de Cayey neighborhood, said Wilson Porrata Mariani, another spokesman for the Guayama police district.

Police impounded two cars and also are investigating a home in another neighborhood, Huertas del Barrio Beatriz de Cidra.

Lopez Mercado's body was found on Puerto Rico Road 184 in another part of town, Barrio Guavate de Cayey, police said.

The slaying has reverberated throughout the gay and lesbian community in the United States, where supporters started a Facebook page called "Justice for Jorge Steven Lopez -- End Hate Crimes." The group demands an investigation by Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno and prosecution of the slaying under the Federal Hate Crimes Law.

The law was enacted in 1969 to guard the rights of U.S. citizens engaged in any of six protected activities, such as voting, going to school, applying for a job or attending a public venue. Last month, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends federal protection against illegal acts motivated by a person's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Gay activist Serrano said he does not believe anti-gay sentiment is any stronger in Puerto Rico's Latin culture than anywhere else.

"That's a long-debunked myth, that our culture is more homophobic," Serrano said.

Instead, he attributed any ill will toward gays to "hate rhetoric" by some religious and political leaders. One politician, he said, recently referred to gays as "twisted and mentally ill."

"That's the kind of rhetoric that incites violence against gays," Serrano said.

Equality Forum, an international gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights organization, asked for a federal investigation.

"Equality Forum calls on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to have the FBI investigate," said former federal prosecutor Malcolm Lazin, the group's executive director. "The Matthew Shepard Amendment empowers and requires the federal government to prosecute this horrific murder."

Serrano said Lopez Mercado was a "very, very dear friend" he had met through a mutual acquaintance.

"Jorge was a person who you only needed one minute to fall in love with," Serrano said.

Lopez Mercado often volunteered for gay causes, Serrano said.

The teen's family is coping, considering the circumstances.

"It has been horrible, but they are very grateful that it has come to a quick resolution," Serrano said.