Just Another Dead Body? Why Hate Crimes Deserve Special Recognition

Gonzalo Zurita Balderas argues that hate crimes need to be recognized in Mexico.

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On June 26, 2015, police officers in Chihuahua, Mexico found a corpse wrapped in a Mexican flag. While the cause of death was eventually determined to be suffocation, there were several stab wounds inflicted prior to the time of death, as well as several gunshot wounds to the face. The body was strategically positioned with hands tied together holding an object that resembled a phallus. The murder victim was dressed as a woman; however, when the authorities carried out the autopsy they found a significant fact: the victim had male genitalia.

How this crime should be designated has generated some controversy. Some local newspapers and even authorities have suggested that this was a crime of passion. Crimes of passion are criminals act prompted by a sudden emotion, such as anger. Perpetrators of crimes of passion often claim to be outside of themselves with no control over their acts. This particular state of mind might otherwise be understood as an emotional experience in which persons lose control over their reflective capacity while performing (often violent) acts. This altered state can be caused by drug abuse or verbal provocations; however, prejudice does not play a central role.

By contrast, LGBT activists have argued that the crime in question was a hate crime. Hate crimes are criminal acts motivated by bias or prejudice against an individual or individuals of a specific marginalized group. Victims of hate crimes are targeted because of the traits that identify them as part of the group in question. In most cases, perpetrators of hate crimes show little or no remorse and claim that they were doing the “right” thing.

1024px-Cruces_Lomas_del_PoleoIn my view, those who designate the crime at issue as a hate crime and not a crime of passion are right. There are a number of relevant factors that suggest why this should be so—and more specifically, a hate crime against transgendered people. First, in the case of crimes of passion, the violence is typically connected to specific ends—harming or killing someone. In the case at hand, the violence displayed to the victim exceeded what was necessary to cause death. Indeed, the perpetrator engaged in additional and unnecessary violence, stabbing and shooting the victim.

Second, hate crimes have a symbolic dimension. The violence inflicted to the victim is not committed accidentally. In the case at issue, the gunshots to the face worked to erase the victim’s experience as transgender and expressed, one might assume, a hatred towards transgender people. In a similar fashion, the symbolic phallus suggests that even if the victim was dressed as woman, they were seen by the perpetrator as an “illegitimate” or “false” woman.

Finally, wrapping the dead body in a Mexican flag is no mere coincidence. Flags are not just a piece of fabric with colors; they represent the national identity of a country. By wrapping the dead body with the national flag, the perpetrator intended to leave a message: The national identity of Mexicans is not compatible with transgender identity. One might assume as well that, for the perpetrator, being transgender is something that puts Mexican identity at risk, and, consequently, that transgender people need to be eradicated.

Unfortunately, in spite of a large history of violence against marginalized groups, Mexican legislation leaves little room for hate crime designations. Mexico City is the only one of thirty-two states in the country to legislate hate crimes. Why should such designations matter? Because hate crimes don’t just affect the individual victim of the crime but they also affect all people who identify with the group to which the victim belongs. When the term hate crime is used it shows that violence is directed against groups that, despite their differences, form part of society. In a plural and democratic state, such as what Mexico claims to be, it is important to assure the integrity of all members of society, and to recognize when wrongs to groups have been committed.

Moreover, in Mexico, crimes of passion are seen as lesser crimes and deserving of a reduced sentence than other crimes due to the mitigating circumstances of the perpetrator’s mental state. However, this was not just another dead body. Designating this crime as a hate crime permits the punishment to better fit the crime and to provide justice for the victim and the rest of the aggravated society.

Greater social recognition of hate crimes in Mexico is needed. Hate crimes must also be recognized in Mexican Federal law in order to help ensure the freedom and safety of all Mexican citizens.

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Gonzalo Zurita Balderas is a fourth year philosophy undergraduate student from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and a MITACS Globalink Intern at Novel Tech Ethics, Dalhousie University. @Gonzo_Zurita

 

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