Activists blame Argentina’s government after three gay women killed in arson attack

Activists blame Argentina’s government after three gay women killed in arson attack

Activists in Argentina have accused the country’s far-right government of stoking homophobia after an alleged hate crime in which four gay women were set on fire, killing three and seriously injuring the fourth.

A man in his 60s is alleged to have thrown burning rags into the women’s shared bedroom of a boarding house in Buenos Aires early on 6 May.

Neighbors say they were woken by the women’s screams as an inferno ripped through the building. The suspect, Justo Fernando Barrientos, is alleged to have fought with the women in an attempt to stop them escaping the flames, before fleeing to the roof where he attempted suicide, and was later arrested.

Pamela Fabiana Cobas, 52, died almost immediately. Her partner, Mercedes Roxana Figueroa, also 52, suffered burns on more than 90% of her body and died of organ failure two days later. Andrea Amarante, 42, suffered burns on more than 75% of her body and died on 12 May.

The fourth victim, 49-year-old Sofía Castro Riglos, remains in hospital. Thirty occupants were also evacuated, with seven others hospitalized for burns.

The attack has shocked the nation previously known for its progressive LGBTQ+ laws. “They were set on fire for being lesbians,” a member of a neighborhood association told more than 200 protesters on Monday evening.

Demonstrators carrying banners reading “they killed them” have accused Javier Milei’s government of promoting hate speech and fostering a culture of intolerance.

Human rights organizations have also accused prominent politicians of contributing to high levels of violence against LGBTQ+ communities and blame the government for closing safe spaces for queer people.

“The attack is one of the cruelest hate crimes in recent years and takes place in a context in which hate speech is on the rise across the country,” said María Rachid, the head of the institute against discrimination in the ombudsman’s office.

Argentina’s LGBT Federation said that the only spaces for victims of homophobic attacks “are being emptied or eliminated by the current government”.

One of the first decisions of the Milei administration was to close the National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism. The self-described libertarian president has also banned the use of gender-inclusive language within the military.

In November 2023, now-foreign minister Diana Mondino compared marriage equality to head lice in a TV interview, saying: “If you prefer not to bathe and be full of lice, it’s your choice … but don’t complain if there is someone who does not like that you have lice.”

The Argentine LGBTQ+ ombudsman, meanwhile, found that offensive speech by members of Milei’s political party during the 2023 presidential campaign “built a climate of segregation, rejection and discrimination; the most fertile ground for violence toward historically vulnerable groups”.

In the aftermath of the attack, the presidential spokesperson, Manuel Adorni, was also criticized for saying that while the attack was “terrible” he would “not like to define it as an attack against a certain group”.

“Government officials should cease and condemn rhetoric that stigmatizes queer women and may contribute to a climate in which they are seen as deserving of violence,” said Erin Kilbride, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Local media reported witnesses as saying the suspect had regularly insulted the four women and had previously threatened to kill Cobas and Figueroa. He has not yet been charged, and it remains unclear whether prosecutors will include hate crime charges in addition to multiple murder charges.

Amnesty International is demanding a full investigation with a gender perspective that “considers the identity of the victims and the motivation for the attack”.