Family and friends in Laredo, Texas are mourning for Nikki Enriquez, who was murdered earlier this month in the border community. And another community is also grieving for Enriquez – transgender activists across the United States.
Enriquez’s death marks the 21st use of “fatal violence” against a transgender person in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a civil rights organization for LGBTQ Americans. Her death puts this year on track to match the 28 murders of transgender people in the U.S. in 2017, making this the deadliest year recorded by the organization since it began keeping death totals in 2013.
Transgender deaths by fatal violence have increased during each of the last three years. In 2015 there were 22 murders of transgender people and 23 in 2016.
“There is an epidemic of violence against people from marginalized communities in this country, and it’s an epidemic that is rising,” Sarah McBride said, the national press secretary for the HRC.
Of the 21 deaths recorded this year, 19 have been been transgender people of color, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The HRC reported that Enriquez’s death was the “fifth known killing of a trans woman of color” in the three-week period between Aug. 30 and Sept. 20.
“The murder rate of transgender individuals in America is alarming, especially the murder rate of transgender women of color,” D’Arcy Kemnitz said, the executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association.
Of the 102 transgender murders between 2013 and 2017, 86 percent of the victims were black, Hispanic or Native American. 11 percent were white, and 5 percent were unknown by the organization, according to a 2017 report.
McBride said many transgender murders are the “byproduct of larger forces,” like the combination of sexism, transphobia and racism.
“These deaths are a very clear example of the toxic combination of multiple prejudices and the risk for those living in this country who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities,” McBride said.
None of the deaths in the Laredo spree killing have been charged as hate crimes. The alleged killer, Juan David Ortiz, is a 10-year U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent. He was charged with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and he told authorities he wanted to “eradicate all the prostitutes” in a verbal confession. All four of the victims were sex workers, according to authorities.
Nelly Vielma, a Laredo city council member, called the killings “a femicide” and a hate crime at a Sept. 19 vigil for the victims of the shooting.
“These beautiful souls were taken way too soon, away from us, from an act of cowardice,” Vielma said at the vigil.
McBride said hatred against the transgender community is central to Enriquez’s murder, despite the charges filed against Ortiz.
“Whether or not these crimes are charged as hate crimes does not mean that hate is not a factor in these crimes,” McBride said. “Regardless of whether they (authorities) decided to have that charge, it’s clear that hate is a factor in the murder of transgender people across this country.”
McBride said building trust between law enforcement officials and marginalized communities is an important step towards protecting transgender Americans. She called for more “cultural competency” among law enforcement officials when interacting with minority and marginalized communities.
Kemnitz also said collaboration among communities is central to ensuring the safety of transgender people.
“We must work together to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities,” Kemnitz said.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol did not respond to request for comment on whether they will enhance sensitivity training in light of Ortiz’s arrest or Ortiz’s employment status. They are cooperating with authorities in Laredo.