(WB) A federal grand jury in Puerto Rico on Wednesday indicted two men accused of murdering two transgender women last month.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Juan in a press release notes the grand jury indicted Sean Díaz de León and Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla on four charges that include carjacking resulting in death, using a firearm in relation to crimes of violence and destruction of property using explosive materials.

Díaz and Pagán allegedly murdered Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaz on April 21 once they learned their gender identity after they had “sexual relations.” The trans women’s bodies were found inside Pelaz’s car, which had been set on fire underneath a bridge in the municipality of Humacao on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast.

Díaz and Pagán have already been charged under the federal hate crimes law.

The two men could face the death penalty if convicted. Activists in Puerto Rico have urged federal prosecutors not to apply it in this case.

The indictment was announced against the backdrop of growing outrage over the murders of five trans people in Puerto Rico since the beginning of the year. The Broad Community for the Search for Equity, a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups in the U.S. commonwealth known by the acronym CABE, has also sharply criticized Gov. Wanda Vázquez and her government over its response to these cases and the murders of other LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.

“Wanda Vázquez’s silence is deafening,” Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ advocacy group, told the Washington Blade on April 29 during a virtual press conference that CABE organized. “Her silence makes her complicit in these murders.”

Puerto Rico Senate approves controversial new Civil Code

Violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is commonplace in Puerto Rico, and activists with whom the Blade has spoken say Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017, made LGBTQ Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable. The U.S. commonwealth’s hate crimes law is LGBTQ-inclusive, but prosecutors rarely use it.

The Puerto Rico Senate on Monday approved an amended version of the island’s Civil Code.

Lambda Legal in a press release notes the new Civil Code does not eliminate trans Puerto Ricans’ rights to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. Lambda Legal and other advocacy groups nevertheless say LGBTQ Puerto Ricans would remain vulnerable to discrimination if the new Civil Code becomes law.

Serrano in a press release urged Vázquez to veto it, in part, because the Senate approved it “in secret” and “without any transparency.”

“As of now the final version of what was approved, in the shortest vote possible, by the Senate has not been published,” said Serrano.

“There is great concern about the rights of women, LGBTTIQ+ people, common-law couples, among other groups,” he added.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David echoed Serrano.

“Puerto Ricans deserve a fair, transparent ratification process of their Civil Code, not a rushed, backroom deal by the legislature,” said David in a statement that also criticized Puerto Rican lawmakers who he said have tried to use the new Civil Code to target LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.

"The secrecy surrounding the codes and the legislative process is particularly troubling in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which has critically hampered the ability for citizens to participate and make their voices heard. Governor Wanda Vazquez must stand up for LGBTQ Puerto Ricans and for democracy by slowing down this process and allowing all to participate in shaping the future of the island,” he added

Vázquez on Wednesday issued a statement that appeared to respond to critics of the new Civil Code.

“It is our understanding that amendments for which we asked — that guarantee the permanence of rights that had already been won — were included in the bill on the [Senate] floor on Monday,” she said in a tweet. “Specifically, the protection of the rights of women and those related to birth certificates and a person’s gender. However, the legislative process continues and now the measure returns to the House of Representatives.”

The Puerto Rico House of Representatives on Thursday approved the new Civil Code.