Facing Surge in Violence, El Salvador’s Transgender Rights Advocates Demand Justice

In 2015, Aldo Alexander Peña was on his way to a pride parade in the capital of El Salvador. He was excited. It was his first time joining the parade since he began hormone replacement therapy, which helped his appearance align with his identity as a transgender man.

But what should have been a day of celebration for LGBT rights quickly turned into a vicious attack. The bus Peña was riding on refused to stop and let him off; when he complained, the bus driver called the police—who beat Peña, calling him a lesbian.

“There was blood coming out of my mouth and nose, and I could barely see,” Peña said. “At one point, I heard my friend praying for my soul. She thought I was dead.” Hours later, finally at a hospital, doctors told him he had a broken jaw and a fractured eye socket.

Widespread Violence Against LGBT People

Sadly, such an attack is not unusual in Latin America, which has the world’s highest rates of violence against LGBT people. Many violent crimes go unpunished in El Salvador, in particular, thanks to the presence of widespread, powerful gangs and a dearth of effective law enforcement. El Salvador has the world’s highest murder rate of any country not openly at war—a single day without a homicide can make international news—and it ranks among the worst-scoring countries on the Global Impunity Index.

Rampant discrimination against the country’s LGBT community often translates to a lack of police action when crimes are committed against transgender people. A 2016 report found that transgender women in El Salvador have an average life expectancy of less than 35 years, due in part to the high rates of violence they suffer.

Earlier this year, three transgender women were murdered in El Salvador in a span of just 72 hours—and in May, with the number of transgender deaths still on the rise, the United Nations called for an investigation into crimes against sexual minorities in the country. Along with other LGBT rights activists in El Salvador, AJWS grantee ASTRANS helped call attention to this disturbing trend.

“The gangs in one area here have said: ‘We will kill all trans people’,” Sebastian Cerritos, coordinator of ASTRANS, told VICE News. “The killers believe what they’re doing is allowed.”

A Surprising Victory

Set against this backdrop of transgender murders, Peña’s case had an unusual ending—not only because he survived his attack by police, but because his case went to court.

Two AJWS grantees stepped in to assist Peña: Generacion Hombres Trans El Salvador (HT El Salvador) and Fundacion de Estudios para la Aplicacion del Derecho (FESPAD). HT El Salvador helped Peña bring the attack to the attention of the country’s attorney general and the human rights ombudsman, who launched an independent investigation. With legal support from FESPAD, this led to a criminal case. In October 2016, a judge handed down a guilty verdict, sentencing two of the police officers involved in the attack to four years in prison, respectively, for aggravated assault.

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It marked the first time that police in El Salvador were successfully prosecuted for an attack against a transgender person—making the case a rare, but critical victory not just for Peña, but for the country’s entire LGBT community.

AJWS’s grantees in El Salvador continue to press for progress, despite the risks involved in their work. Their efforts range from advocating for legal solutions to running clinics, where transgender clients receive both medical and psychological support.

“We live with the uncertainty,” said Verónica López, a trans woman and board president of ASTRANS. “[But] I feel very motivated right now … I have been able to find people in activism that lend me a hand in different ways, and make me motivated to continue to fight.”

Elizabeth DaubeElizabeth Daube is a Senior Communications Officer at AJWS.