Killings highlight marginalization of transgender people in El Salvador

Crosses represent victims of anti-LGBT homicides in Brazil, one of the deadliest countries to be LGBT. (Elza Fiuza/Creative Commons)

A recent spike in killings of transgender people has underlined the ongoing violence and discrimination they face in El Salvador, a notoriously violent country in the world’s deadliest region for LBGT people.

Three transgender people were killed in the central San Juan Talpa region last month, Reuters reported, stirring fear among members of El Salvador’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community.

The killings were discussed at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) earlier this month, which addressed the country’s ongoing struggle with anti-LGBT violence and hate crimes.

According to the advocacy organizations that attended the hearing, eight transgender women have fled the country after the three homicides, as well as 14 registered hate crimes related to sexual orientation or gender identity in the first two months of this year.

The groups said more than 600 people have been victims of such hate crimes in El Salvador since 2004.

“These [crimes]are distinguished by high degrees of cruelty and cruelty, where it is evident that they have been tortured, their genitals mutilated or been publicly exposed,” Salvadoran LGBT advocate Bianka Rodriguez told commissioners at the meeting, Diario Latino reported.

Representatives of the Salvadoran government testified at the IACHR hearing to defend the country’s efforts to combat anti-LGBT violence, the Washington Blade reported.

Cruz Torres, director of the Office of Diversity in El Salvador’s Ministry of Social Inclusion, said the government has directed public agencies to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2015, Salvadoran lawmakers approved a bill that enhances penalties for anti-LGBT hate crimes.

Still, LGBT advocates say law enforcement officials lack of urgency in addressing such crimes.

“Discrimination, intolerance and disrespect to their rights means that many attacks are not reported, and those that are, are never investigated, driving rates of impunity for crimes against LGBT people to almost 100 percent,” said Florence Reggiardo, lawyer for the Center for Justice and International Law, at the IACHR meeting, Diario Latino reported.

Latin America is the world’s deadliest region for LGBT people, according to research group Transrespect Versus Transphobia Worldwide. In a recent press release, the IACHR said it received reports of at least 41 attacks and killings of LGBT people across the region this year, 17 of which come from El Salvador.

Outside of conflict zones, the Central American country has one of the world’s highest murder rates. Media reports have detailed the trauma faced by entire neighborhoods controlled by two powerful gangs – Barrio 18 and its rival Mara Salvatrucha – that maintain control by means of extortion, rape and murder.

Advocates say LGBT people face a double threat from such violence. They say anti-LBGT rhetoric from religious figures and politicians perpetuates already entrenched social prejudices, and that the influential Roman Catholic Church furthers anti-LGBT sentiment by publicly condemning gay marriage and sex.

Transgender people are not allowed to change to the gender they identify with on public documents, and same-sex marriage is not recognized by Salvadoran law.

In Latin American countries that have legalized marriage and other basic rights to the LGBT community, advocates say queer people fare better economically. According to Javier Corrales, Latin America and LGBT rights expert at Amherst College, such laws can diminish social discrimination even in fiercely Catholic countries.

“The big issue is, if you have these laws changing faster than public opinion, do we then see public opinion changing more quickly once the laws are imposed?” Corrales said in an interview with Christian Science Monitor last year. “There is some early evidence that the answer is ‘yes.’ The process of getting constitutions changed and laws changed produces public debate. And debate can produce changes in opinion.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com