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Puerto Rico Introduces New Guidelines for Hate Crimes

Hemera/Thinkstock(SAN JUAN) -- At least 18 members of Puerto Rico's LGBT community were murdered in 2010 and 2011 alone. But to the frustration of many gay rights activists, no killings or assaults targeting members of the LGBT community have ever been classified as hate crimes, according to Pedro Julio Serrano, a spokesperson for the U.S.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

But things could change. On Thursday, Puerto Rico's Secretary of Justice Guillermo Somoza, in the last press conference of his term, announced that new protocol for the processing and sentencing of hate crimes would be put in place, the Puerto Rican newspaper Primera Hora reported.

Although Somoza did not offer detailed plans, he did note that the new initiative is partially a product of meetings with LGBT groups in recent years. The protocol will reportedly guide authorities and prosecutors in determining whether or not a particular incident meets the requirements to be investigated as a hate crime, and provide law enforcement agents with clear steps to take when identifying evidence.

Serrano calls the new guidelines "too little, too late."

"We've been trying to get this protocol in place for over three years and finally, in the last month of their tenure, they finally unveil it," Serrano said, referring to administration of Gov. Luis Fortuño, who lost a re-election bid to Alejandro García Padilla in November.

Last year, the Justice Department issued a report condemning Puerto Rico for its rampant police corruption. Among the stated grievances, the report found that law enforcement needed "to improve its handling and investigation of hate crimes, particularly crimes against individuals in the LGBT community." Legislatively, things moved in the opposite direction: In the same year, the commonwealth's legislature considered stripping protections for LGBT individuals from hate crime law that had been in place since 2002.

The action was condemned by a number of prominent members of the Puerto Rican community, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and singer Ricky Martin.

"They ought to do their homework and review a little the Universal Declaration of Human Rights...which says that everyone -- the citizens -- are equal before the law and have, without distinction, the right to equal protection under the law," Martin posted on his website last year.

Critics of the measure, which did not pass, say that anti-gay sentiments are commonplace on the island and that the lack of protections for the LGBT community only reinforces such discrimination.

While the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Serrano is frustrated with how long it took for the hate crime protocol to be instated, he called it "a step in the right direction."

"We look forward to working with the new administration to make sure that hate crimes are investigated and prosecuted as such," Serrano wrote in an email.

The Governor-elect Alejandro Garcia Padilla has vowed to work to combat anti-LGBT violence in his coming term. In a speech he gave to the LGBT community before the election, Padilla insisted that he'd help fight such injustices on the island. He even closed by echoing a famous line from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States.

"My name is Alejandro Garcia Padilla," he said in Spanish, "And I'm here to recruit you."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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