Remembering Tortuguita, Indigenous queer and non-binary environmental activist and forest defender

by Shoshana K. Goldberg

Tortuguita, a 26-year-old Indigenous queer and non-binary environmental activist and community organizer, was shot and killed by Georgia state troopers in Atlanta, Georgia on January 18, 2023. Tortuguita’s case was originally covered under our Additional Concerning Deaths, but we decided to release this blog and include them in our formal tracking, in light of new information that has emerged.

Tortuguita’s death is at least the seventh violent killing of a transgender or gender non-conforming person in 2023, and the second in Georgia in six weeks. We say “at least” because too often these deaths go unreported — or misreported.

At the time of their death, Tortuguita, who used they/them pronouns, was participating in an ongoing protest alongside other self-described “forest defender” protestors against a proposed $90 million, 85-acre police training facility deemed “Cop City” by activists, slated to be built in the Weelaunee (South River) Forest in Atlanta. On the morning of the 18th, police were executing a raid of the camp to knock down structures and remove the protestors. During this process, a State Trooper was shot and wounded, and Tortuguita was killed.

As reported by the AP—in an article which misgenders Tortuguita—police claim that it was Tortuguita who had shot the officers first after they had refused to leave their tent, leading the police to shoot in self-defense.

However, evidence has emerged in ensuing months that calls into question the police’s account. On February 8th body cam footage was released by the Atlanta Police Department wherein officers can be heard asking if the state trooper had been shot by another trooper, rather than Tortuguita. On March 11th, lawyers for Tortuguita’s family held a press conference in Decatur, Georgia, where they released results from an independent autopsy which revealing Tortuguita had been shot at least 14 times, including in the hands and face, and that they were “most probably in a seated position, cross-legged when killed.” The autopsy, which was conducted at the request of Tortuguita’s family, further revealed that Tortuguita’s hands were raised in the air when they were shot and killed. The Georgia Board of Investigations has conducted their own autopsy but, to date, has not released results from the report; Tortuguita’s family is currently suing for information to be released under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Speaking to the press, Tortuguita’s mother Belkis Terán, who, along with family lawyers referred to Tortuguita as Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, mourned the loss of her child, stating they “loved the forest, they meditated there, the forest connected them with God...I never thought that [Tortuguita] could die in a meditation position. My heart is destroyed.” While the press conference was underway, a “large contingent” of police and contractors with heavy equipment began clearing the woods for construction to begin on the “Cop City” training facility.

In a statement given to Democracy Now! in January, forest defenders described Tortuguita as a “radiant, joyful, beloved community member” who “brought an indescribable jubilance to each and every moment of their life,” and “fought tirelessly to honor and protect the sacred land of the Weelaunee Forest. They took great joy in caring for each and every person that they came across."

Tortuguita is the 16th transgender or non-binary person to be killed in a police-involved shooting in the past decade, and the third to be killed in the prior six months. As noted in the HRC report “An Epidemic of Violence 2022”, between 2013 and 2022, at least 15 transgender or gender non-conforming people died at the hands of the police or while in police/state custody, including Tony McDade, Maddie Hofmann, and Aaron Lynch. As reported by The Washington Post, as of this writing, there have been 8,283 fatal police shootings nationwide since 2015, and almost 1,100 in the past 12 months.

More resources:

  • Learn more about the fatal violence cases that HRC is tracking where details are unclear. You may find a list of these cases here.

  • Watch this PSA campaign elevating stories of trans joy and love.

  • Join HRC's Count Me In campaign to take action for transgender and non-binary people.

  • Read these guidelines and this FAQ for journalists to ensure greater accuracy and respect in reporting.

  • Learn about how transgender and non-binary people are combating transphobia, stigma and anti-trans violence through our Celebrating Changemakers series.