‘It’s hatred’: Argentina’s queer community reeling from brutal triple lesbicide

A rise in homophobic hate speech, a housing crisis, and state abandonment contributed to the arson attack, activists say

The murder of three lesbians in an arson attack has left Argentina’s queer community reeling.

Of the four women set on fire as they slept in a boarding house in Barracas, three — Pamela Cobbas, Mercedes Roxana Figueroa, and Andrea Amarante — have now died. The fourth victim remains in hospital. 

LGBTQIA+ activists are demanding justice, asking why the state failed to protect them — and denouncing a disturbing rise in homophobic discourse from top officials and allies in President Javier Milei’s administration.

“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 making community, creating a refuge,” said Jesi Hernández. She was reading from a document written by Autoconvocades Lesbianes por Barracas (Independent Lesbians for Barracas), a newly-formed activist group which has spearheaded efforts to demand justice. 

As protesters filled the street, an altar was set up in tribute to the victims in the doorway of the boarding house on Monday. There was singing, speeches, and repeated calls of “Pamela, Roxana, Andrea, presentes” as people laid down flowers and plastered the street with posters. 

Head of the Ombudsman’s LGBTQIA+ Office María Rachid confirmed to the Herald that the attacker has been charged with homicide. However, the office will seek to categorize it as a hate crime, in particular as a “lesbicide.” His mental health is currently being evaluated in hospital due to self-inflicted wounds. According to Agencia Presentes, neighbors saw him beat and push the women back into the flames when they tried to escape, and he had previously threatened them.

None of the victims’ families have come forward, and the community is taking care of its own with advocacy and fundraising. LGBTQIA+ activists have kicked into gear alongside established organizations to cover funeral costs and garner support for the survivor, who is still in hospital.

The discrimination and violence faced by the queer community in Argentina isn’t new. The National LGBTQIA+ Hate Crime Observatory highlights that a large proportion of deaths are attributed to the state, either through institutional violence or abandonment. According to the Observatory, there were more recorded hate crimes against the queer community in 2023 compared to 2022. 

The country marks the “Day of Lesbian Visibility” on March 7 in memory of Pepa Gaitán, a 27-year-old lesbian who was shot by her girlfriend’s father in 2010 — a hand-painted banner featured prominently in the Barracas protests includes the words Viva La Pepa in her honor.

However, since the election of President Javier Milei, there has been a marked increase in hate speech from politicians and high-profile activists for the ruling party La Libertad Avanza. Since the attack, Presidential Spokesman Manuel Adorni has denied in press conferences and online that the word “lesbicide” exists. Days before the killings, Milei’s biographer, Nicolás Márquez, made strong homophobic statements on one of Argentina’s most popular radio shows. 

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Activist Jesi Hernández holds a sign that reads "Hate crimes against our community don't mean freedom, it's violence" at a vigil held for the Barracas massacre victims
Activist Jesi Hernández holds a sign that reads “Hate crimes against our community don’t mean freedom, it’s violence” at a vigil held for the Barracas massacre victims. Photo: Valen Iricibar

“We are fighting to prevent and eradicate hate speech and condemn the actions of those who incite violence and crime against the community because they are responsible,” Nath Zerbonia, an LGBTQIA+ and children’s rights activist, told the Herald outside Congress on Friday at a protest over the attack.

Many, like Zerbonia, see the deaths of Cobbas, Figueroa, and Amarante as a grievous consequence of this rising hate speech. They feel it has become more accepted since the presidential campaign, emboldening individuals who may wish to attack the community. They have also pointed to government austerity measures and the dismantling of key institutions like the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism as further endangering the community.

Amarante was a survivor of the 2004 Cromañón tragedy when a fire during a rock concert in the Once district of Buenos Aires killed 194 people and injured 1,432. The disaster remains one of the deadliest in music history.

“Andrea was on the streets and slept where she could. Twenty years later, Andrea’s worst fears and nightmares became a reality,” wrote victims’ association Coordinadora Cromañón in a statement. They added that Amarante was never included on the Buenos Aires City Government’s register of victims, was not in the health program created for survivors, and did not receive any economic support.

The women scraped by with odd jobs and were sharing one room between four. Their situation in the run-up to their murders raises questions about the housing crisis in Buenos Aires City and a lack of policies for vulnerable queer people.

Protesters marched on Monday to the boarding house where Cobbas, Figueroa, and Amarante were murdered, marking a week from the attack with a community vigil. Unfurling the same flag and holding cardboard signs aloft, they blocked the Montes de Oca Avenue en route to the boarding house on Olavarría Street.

“I think the important thing is that the term ‘lesbicide’ becomes part of the nation’s vocabulary the same way we learned terms like ‘femicide’ and ‘travesticide.’ So we understand that the same way you can be killed for being a woman or a travesti, you can be killed for being a lesbian,” Hernández told the Herald, adding that the women’s deaths should be a “before and after moment” in terms of how Argentine society talks about lesbians.

“I wish for justice. That this man be put behind bars but also for this limit to be drawn for society: in whose head can live the idea of setting people on fire for their identity? It’s too much.”


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