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Mexico: Mexico’s first openly non-binary magistrate found dead at home

Authorities look into Jesús Ociel Baena’s cause of death as activists urge full investigation into gender identity-related threats

Mexico’s first openly non-binary magistrate and a prominent LGBTQ+ activist has been found dead at home in the central state of Aguascalientes.Jesús Ociel Baena, who used they/them pronouns, was celebrated across Latin America for their work to advance the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Mexico’s security minister, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, said authorities were investigating the cause of death. “We don’t know yet ... if it was a homicide or if it was some kind of accident,” she said during the president’s regular morning press conference.

The Aguascalientes state prosecutor’s office said in a statement that Baena’s body was found along with that of another person, whom local media identified as Baena’s partner.

Preliminary findings showed no evidence of a third party at the scene and that the deaths could have been a “personal matter”, the statement said.

The authorities are carrying out a forensic analysis to determine the cause of death, the office said.

But human rights activists have pointed out that Mexican authorities have a history of dismissing murders as crimes of passion and asked for a full investigation into whether Baena’s death was related to their gender identity.

Alejandro Brito, director of the LGBTQ+ rights group Letra S, said that Baena’s visibility on social media made them a target and urged authorities to take that context 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, were breaking through the invisible barriers that closed in the nonbinary community.

Baena was among the most visible LGBTQ+ figures in a country where queer communities are often violently targeted, and had already received death threats.

Baena made history in October 2022 when they were sworn in as a magistrate on the Aguascalientes state electoral tribunal in front of the rainbow LGBTQ+ flag, according to a photo they shared on Twitter/X under the caption “Making history”.

Baena would regularly publish photos and videos of themselves in skirts, heels and toting a rainbow fan in court offices and advocating on social media platforms with hundreds of thousands of followers.

“I am a non-binary 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,” Baena posted on Twitter/X in June. “Accept it.”

Just weeks before their death, Baena was presented with a certificate by the electoral court recognizing them with gender neutral pronouns as a “maestre”, a significant step in Spanish, a language that historically splits the language between two genders, male and female.

While Brito said Mexico has made significant steps in reducing levels of anti-LGBTQ+ violence in recent decades, his group registered a significant uptick in such violence in 2019, documenting at least 117 lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgender people killed in the country. Many were grisly killings, including brutal stabbings and public slayings.

Brito said he worried that the death of Baena could provoke further acts of violence against queer communities.

“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.’”

In Baena’s honor, LGBTQ+ activists are planning vigils and demonstrations on Monday night in Aguascalientes, as well as Mexico City, Monterrey and other major cities.

The former chief justice of Mexico’s supreme court, Arturo Zaldívar, said he deeply lamented Baena’s death.

“We lost a strong voice for equality and the rights of LGBTI+ people,” he said in a social media post.