Daniel Zamudio: The homophobic murder that changed Chile

Gay rights activists light candles to pay tribute to Daniel Zamudio Daniel Zamudio was burned and had swastikas carved into his skin

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More than 18 months after Daniel Zamudio was beaten to death in a park in Santiago for the simple fact of being gay, the shock waves from his murder are still reverberating through Chile.

Gay rights are being taken more seriously than ever before. A tentative debate is under way about legalising same-sex marriage.

The candidates in the upcoming presidential election are conscious that this is an issue on which they have to take a stand.

Chile still lags behind some of its Latin American neighbours on these issues.

In Argentina, for example, gay marriage is already legal. In Brazil, homosexuality has been tolerated since the 19th century, while in Chile it was decriminalised as recently as 1999.

Start Quote

We would have liked to see life sentences for three of the four but the Chilean law is what it is”

End Quote Rolando Jimenez Gay rights campaigner

And this is still one of only four countries in South America where the age of consent is higher for gays than for heterosexuals.

But attitudes are changing, and the murder of Mr Zamudio was undoubtedly a watershed.

Sadistic

When Mr Zamudio was assaulted on 3 March last year, it wasn't simply the fact that a gay man was beaten to death in a public space that shocked Chileans.

It was the sadistic nature of the attack.

His four assailants carved swastikas on his skin, branded him with cigarettes and smashed his right leg with an 18lb (8kg) rock. According to graphic court testimony released earlier this month, they then urinated on his body.

Mr Zamudio died in hospital three weeks later.

Patricio Ahumada Garay enters the courtroom where he is on trial for the murder of Daniel Zamudio, a gay man, in Santiago, Chile Patricio Ahumada Garay was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Daniel Zamudio

On Monday, a judge sentenced one of the attackers, Patricio Ahumada Garay, to life in prison, describing him as the main perpetrator of the crime.

He sentenced two other defendants, Alejandro Angulo Tapia and Raul Lopez Fuentes, to 15 years each and the fourth man, Fabian Mora Mora, to seven years.

"We would have liked to see life sentences for three of the four but the Chilean law is what it is," said Rolando Jimenez, president of gay rights campaign group, Movilh.

"But we're satisfied that our lawyers managed to get the stiffest sentences possible under the Chilean penal code," he told the BBC.

Spurred into action

Within weeks of Mr Zamudio's murder, legislators, spurred into action by public outrage, had signed into law an anti-discrimination bill that had been languishing in parliament for seven years.

The bill makes it a crime to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, appearance or disability.

Gay marriage has been an issue in this year's election campaign. Chileans go to the polls on 17 November to choose a new president.

"Of the nine presidential candidates, seven of them are proposing more comprehensive anti-discrimination laws and many of them are advocating gay marriage," Mr Jimenez said.

People march to demand the government a law for equal rights for the LGBT community in Santiago, Chile, on 29 September 2012 A gay rights march in Santiago last May drew thousands of people

Among them is Michelle Bachelet, the overwhelming frontrunner to win the election.

She has changed her mind on gay marriage. During her first government, between 2006 and 2010, she opposed it, favouring civil partnerships for same-sex couples instead.

But now she advocates it, although many Christian Democrats in her coalition do not and are likely to oppose any attempt to legalise it if she wins the election.

The current president, Sebastian Pinera, opposes gay marriage but has broadly promoted gay rights, despite distaste from conservative elements within his centre-right coalition.

He surprised many in 2009 by including openly gay couples in his campaign commercials.

On Monday, he welcomed the sentences handed down in the Zamudio case, describing the murder as one of "hatred, discrimination and cruelty".

'Culture of violence'

Chilean attitudes to gay marriage are changing.

Gay marriage in Latin America

  • Argentina - Gay marriage became legal in July 2010
  • Uruguay - Same-sex marriage bill came into force in August 2013
  • Brazil - In May 2013, the National Council of Justice ruled that marriage licenses should not be denied to same sex couples
  • Mexico - Legislation on same-sex unions is a matter for individual states
  • Colombia - A judge ordered a notary to sign a document which gave a same-sex couple the same rights as a heterosexual one in July 2013

A poll in La Tercera newspaper showed that the percentage of Chileans in favour of it grew from 38% in 2009 to 47% in 2011. Another poll, conducted by Radio Cooperativa in 2012, suggested 55% were in favour and 41% against.

In last year's census, Chileans who cohabit with a same-sex partner were given the chance to register the fact for the first time.

And yet, hate crimes continue.

On 20 October, a 21-year-old gay man, Wladimir Sepulveda, was attacked in the town of San Francisco de Mostazal, 60km (37 miles) south of Santiago, as he walked home, arm-in-arm with another man.

His six attackers included two women. Witnesses said the gang hurled homophobic abuse at Mr Sepulveda as they pushed him to the ground and kicked and beat him unconscious.

Eight days later, he remains in a coma in the city of Rancagua.

On Sunday, Health Minister Jaime Manalich visited him in hospital and lamented this latest homophobic attack.

"Unfortunately, we still live in a culture of violence," he said.

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