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Thousands in Mexico demand justice for LGBTQ+ figure found dead after death threats

Demonstrators march with a picture of Aguascalientes state electoral court magistrate Jesus Ociel Baena in Mexico City, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023.
Eduardo Verdugo
/
AP
Demonstrators march with a picture of Aguascalientes state electoral court magistrate Jesus Ociel Baena in Mexico City, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023.

MEXICO CITY — Thousands marched in Mexico's capital Monday night demanding justice for Jesús Ociel Baena, an influential LGBTQ+ figure who was found dead at home in the central city of Aguascalientes after receiving death threats.

Baena was the first openly nonbinary person to assume a judicial post in Mexico, becoming a magistrate in the Aguascalientes state electoral court, and broke through other barriers in a country where LGBTQ+ people are often targeted with violence.

The state prosecutor's office confirmed that Baena was found dead Monday morning next to another person, who local media and LGBTQ+ rights groups identified as Baena's partner, Dorian Herrera.

State prosecutor Jesús Figueroa Ortega said at a news conference that the two displayed injuries apparently caused by a knife or some other sharp object.

"There are no signs or indications to be able to determine that a third person other than the dead was at the site of the crime," Figuerora Ortega said.

The suggestion that suicide was one possibility in the deaths quickly sparked outrage, with LGBTQ+ groups calling it another attempt by authorities to simply brush aside violence against their communities. People who knew Baena said the magistrate in recent weeks was chipper and talked passionately about the future.

Federal Security Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez said at a briefing that authorities were investigating the deaths and it remained unclear if "it was a homicide or an accident." Some homicides in Mexico have a history of being quickly minimized by authorities as crimes of passion.

Alejandro Brito, director of the LGBTQ+ rights group Letra S, said Baena's visibility on social media made the magistrate a target and urged authorities to take that into consideration in their investigation.

"They were a person who received many hate messages, and even threats of violence and death, and you can't ignore that in these investigations," Brito said. "They, the magistrate, was breaking through the invisible barriers that closed in the nonbinary community."

Brito was echoed by thousands who gathered in the heart of Mexico City lighting candles over photos of Baena and other victims of anti-LGBTQ+ violence. They shouted "Justice" and "We won't stay silent" and demanded a thorough investigation into the deaths.

Among them was Nish López, who came out as nonbinary in March, partly in response to Baena's inspiration.

"I loved them because they made people uncomfortable, but they knew what they were doing," López said. "Through institutions they showed that you can inspire change regardless of your gender identity."

In becoming a magistrate in October 2022, Baena was thought to be the first nonbinary person in Latin America to assume a judicial position. Baena broke through another barrier this May as one of a group of people to be issued Mexico's first passports listing the holders as nonbinary.

Baena appeared in regularly published photos and videos wearing skirts and heels and toting a rainbow fan in court offices and advocated on social media platforms, drawing hundreds of thousands of followers.

"I am a nonbinary person. I am not interested in being seen as either a woman or a man. This is an identity. It is mine, for me, and nobody else. Accept it," Baena posted on X, formerly Twitter, in June.

Last month, the electoral court presented Baena with a certificate recognizing the magistrate with the gender neutral noun "maestre," a significant step in Spanish, a language that splits most of its words between two genders, masculine or feminine.

While Mexico has made significant steps in reducing anti-LGBTQ+ violence, Brito's Letra S documented at least 117 lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgender people slain. Many were grisly killings, including brutal stabbings and public slayings.

The National Observatory of Hate Crimes Against LGBTI+ Persons in Mexico registered 305 violent hate crimes against sexual minorities in 2019-2022, including murder, disappearances and more.

Brito said he worried that Baena's death could provoke further violence against LGBQT+ people.

"If this was a crime motivated by prejudice, these kinds of crimes always have the intention of sending a message," Brito said. "The message is an intimidation, it's to say: 'This is what could happen to you if you make your identities public.'"

But for López, the nonbinary Mexican who walked with throngs of people in heels and many others in the crowd Monday night, the overwhelming feeling wasn't fear. They wanted to carry on Baena's legacy.

"I'm not scared, I'm angry," López said. "I'm here to make myself visible."

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