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‘They were killed because they were lesbians’: Attack on women burned alive shocks Argentina

Four women who shared a room in Buenos Aires were attacked with a Molotov cocktail and only one survived. Members of the LGBTQI+ community ask for justice and warn against the increase in hate speech

Argentina
A protester lights candles at an altar installed at the door of the pension where the four attacked women lived, in Buenos Aires, on May 13.Mariana Nedelcu

More than 200 people demonstrated on Monday night in front of Plaza Colombia in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Two blocks away from there, a humble family-run hotel had been the scene of a multiple crime. In the early hours of Monday, May 6, a man threw a bottle full of flammable liquid into Room 14 and set it on fire, according to a witness reconstruction. Inside there were four women, only one of whom survived the attack.

Pamela Cobbas, 52, died hours later. Her partner, Mercedes Roxana Figueroa, 52, died on Wednesday, after sustaining burns on 90% of her body. Doctors tried unsuccessfully to save the life of Andrea Amarante, 42, for one week. She died on Sunday. The only victim who is still alive is Amarante’s partner, Sofía Castro Riglos, 49. She is out of danger and has already testified in court, but remains hospitalized.

“They were set on fire for being lesbians. They were set on fire for being poor lesbians. They were set on fire for being poor lesbians creating a community,” said a member of a neighborhood association called the Barracas Lesbian Assembly, addressing other demonstrators on Monday. This spokesperson said the crime was aggravated by the precarious housing conditions of the women. All four of them shared a room without a bathroom, for which they paid 50,000 pesos (about $50). A small altar has been improvised outside the hotel, where flowers and candles pay tribute to the victims. The multiple crime has caused a great commotion in the LGBTQI+ community in Argentina, which lamented the limited media coverage.

Three women hold up the names of the victims in Plaza Colombia, in Buenos Aires, on May 13.
Three women hold up the names of the victims in Plaza Colombia, in Buenos Aires, on May 13.Mariana Nedelcu

The main suspect is Justo Fernando Barrientos, 67, who rented a room near the one occupied by his alleged victims. According to the testimony of other tenants, the women’s screams woke everyone up after midnight. When they saw them engulfed in flames they tried to put them out with a fire extinguisher. Since that did not work, they took them to the nearest shower. The intentional fire spread through part of the building and around 30 people had to be evacuated.

Barrientos was arrested after trying to commit suicide with a saw. He was treated for neck injuries at a hospital, and was arrested after he was discharged. He has not yet testified before the judge, who is seeking to determine if he can be held accountable for the crime or if he suffers from a mental disorder.

A man holds flowers and a sign demanding justice and care for the survivor of the attack.
A man holds flowers and a sign demanding justice and care for the survivor of the attack.Mariana Nedelcu

Hate crime

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International said that crimes committed against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans and intersex people are hate crimes. “They are motivated by hatred towards the sexual orientation of the victims, who belong to a group that is structurally violated and discriminated against,” it said Monday in a statement, demanding a full investigation with a gender perspective that “considers the identity of the victims and the motivation for the attack.” The Huésped Foundation warned that “statements that deny the consequences of attacks on people from the LGBTQI+ community enable and promote impunity that accepts violence in all its forms, including that which threatens life.”

The government of President Javier Milei says that every act of violence is equally reprehensible. “It seems very unfair to me to only talk about this event, when violence is something much more comprehensive than simply an issue against a certain group,” the presidential spokesman, Manuel Adorni, said on Monday at a news conference. “There are many women and men who are suffering violence and these are things that cannot continue to happen.”

A woman raises a flag of the LGBTQI+ community during the mobilization called after the triple lesbicide.
A woman raises a flag of the LGBTQI+ community during the mobilization called after the triple lesbicide.Mariana Nedelcu

On Tuesday, Milei uploaded a post to Instagram that said: “No my friend… telling the truth is not generating hate. Whether you hate the truth is another matter.” The message was interpreted as Milei taking a position against those who criticize his government for refusing to classify the attack as a hate crime and for enabling the dissemination of messages against the LGBTQI+ community by people such as his official biographer, Nicolás Márquez. In conversation with EL PAÍS, Márquez opposed adoption by homosexual couples, a possibility contemplated by Argentine laws, considering that it causes psychological consequences such as “suicide attempts, a higher tendency towards homosexuality, and drug addiction.”

In November, in the final stretch of the election campaign, Milei said he had no qualms about people’s sexual choices, but he made a controversial comparison: “If you want to be with an elephant... If you have the elephant’s consent, then it is your problem and the elephant’s. I am not opposed to two people of the same sex getting married.”

Former president Alberto Fernández has also weighed in on the crime. “Such an atrocity cannot be silenced. It challenges us as a society,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter. “The facts must be investigated and judged with a gender perspective. We must all repudiate what happened for what it was: a hate crime in times in which a rhetoric of discrimination and hate is emanating from the national government itself.”

According to the annual report of the National Observatory of LGBTQI+ Hate Crimes, last year in Argentina 133 crimes were recorded in which the sexual orientation, identity and/or gender expression of the victims were used as a pretext for the attacks. In 2022, 129 hate crimes were recorded and in 2021, there were 120.

A protester places protest signs in Plaza Colombia, in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Barracas, on May 13.
A protester places protest signs in Plaza Colombia, in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Barracas, on May 13.Mariana Nedelcu

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