Matamoros gay man who spoke out in media for gay rights murdered
The brutal murder this month of an affluent gay activist in the Texas bor-der town of Matamoros, Mexico, is being viewed as a great loss for the LGBT community on both sides of the Rio Grande River.
And it is raising concerns that his death could forever remain a mystery.
The body of Jose Ernesto Leal Lopez, 42, was found Jan. 15 in his home. He had been beaten over the head and stabbed several times in the throat.
Police found a bloody trail leading from Lopez’s bedroom downstairs to an outside door where he apparently collapsed and died, according to a report in the San Antonio Express-News.
Relatives reported the death to police after an anonymous caller alerted them to trouble at Lopez’s house.
Lopez, who was the owner of a successful salon and a popular emcee at one of Matamoros’ three gay nightclubs, was last seen leaving a club with a man named Mauricio, police investigators said.
Police said robbery had been ruled out as a motive because $5,000 was found inside the house, and the victim’s 2006 Nissan Altima was parked outside.
The homicide is being investigated as a “crime of passion,” and police dismissed concerns that Lopez’s groundbreaking gay activism in the region might have led to his death.
But questions are being raised about the investigation by Lopez’s brother, Rafael, 43, who said he had never heard of Lopez having a friend named Mauricio. The brother said he understood there was supposed to be twice as much money in the house as police found because of a vacation Lopez planned to take to Las Vegas.
For his family, friends and gay activists in the U.S., the timing of Lopez’s death is too suspicious to ignore. Just days before his death, Lopez held a press conference calling for lawmakers in his state of Tamaulipas to pass a same-sex civil union law like the ones passed in Mexico City in November and in the state of Coahuila on Jan.11.
He recently had also spoken out against Matamoros police officers, whom he accused of arbitrarily arresting residents for being gay and fining them $84 to be released.
Lopez’s activism had started just six months ago after the club Moulin Rouge and its patrons named him the “proudest gay person in Matamoros.” After that, he reportedly began speaking out in the media about anti-gay discrimination in the workplace and advocating for gay rights a first for the city of 500,000.
Lopez’s high-profile activism was unusual, not only for Matamoros, but also for the U.S. side of the border in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. His murder and the suspicions around it may very well be seen as a grim reminder of intolerance in the area and the inherent dangers of speaking out.
The Mexican culture is known for its strong religious values mostly Roman Catholic and its machismo male image.
Although there is a fairly large LGBT population in the Valley, most of its members tend to be closeted. With the exceptions of McAllen and South Padre Island, gay bars have always struggled to stay in business in the other U.S. Valley cities, such as Harlingen and Brownsville. Gay residents from the U.S. side of the border both Anglo and Hispanic flock to Matamoros’ nightclubs, despite the reports of drug violence that have hurt the business of the city’s straight nightclubs.
Jesse Garcia, secretary of Dallas’ new Gay LULAC group and a native of Brownsville, said Lopez’s murder reminds him of why he left the Valley. Although he sometimes thinks of returning to his hometown, he is unsure if he will actually ever move back.
“It’s very sad to hear,” Garcia said. “It hurts my heart to know someone who is doing something similar to what we’re doing may have been struck down because of their activism. I’m afraid he paid the ultimate price.”
Garcia said Lopez’s activities were the first he had heard of gay activism on either side of the border in the Valley.
Texas Stonewall Democrats, of which Garcia is also a member, has had difficulty establishing a chapter in the Valley, he added.
“It is still a very closeted community,” Garcia said. “There are no signs of gay life.”
Garcia said he is also concerned that Matamoros police will never find Lopez’s killer.
“By the official coming out and saying it is a crime of passion, it makes me think the case is sealed,” Garcia said. “I have little faith this will be seriously investigated.”
Sergio Chapa, formerly a reporter with the Brownsville Herald, said his experience as a reporter in Matamoros leads him to believe the thoroughness of police investigations involving gay victims depends upon their social status.
“It does change with a person’s status in society when they are closeted or come from a good family,” Chapa said. It is not unusual for crimes involving gay members of prominent families to be hushed up, he said.
A Tamaulipas state prosecutor has vowed that officials will “look for the truth” in Lopez’s murder, but those familiar with the Mexican justice system remain skeptical.
The success of such an investigation and whether the LGBT community on both sides of the border demands that it takes place will undoubtedly determine whether anyone dares to follow in Lopez’s footsteps to fill the void his murder has left.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 26, 2007