Life as a transgender woman in El Salvador: “I am always afraid”

By Karla Avelar, trans activist and Director of COMCAVIS TRANS in El Salvador

While 22 countries have legalized same-sex marriage and the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) are starting to be recognised around the world, in El Salvador the body count continues to rise.

In the last six months, we recorded 13 murders of transgender women and 13 attempted murders – exceeding the 14 attacks that we recorded in 2014.

We endure threats, harassment, attacks and murders from the police and criminal gangs. Hate crimes are being carried out with real brutality. We have friends who have been mutilated, tortured, who have been shot 15 times, often in their own homes. These are hate crimes.

For many members of the transgender community, the situation is so serious that they have decided to leave the country – more than 60 have emigrated, mainly to the United States, after having been subject to threats, harassment and attacks in the last 12 months.

I wake up every morning not knowing whether this will be my last, if someone will kill me because they can’t accept my identity.

In April I was abducted. I was walking in downtown San Salvador when five men surrounded me and forced me into a car. There they examined all my papers, the contacts in my phone, my ID and they took photos of it all.

A few days later, I was at home in the evening when someone knocked on the door. When I asked who was there, no-one answered, the knocking just continued. I was very scared and I couldn’t sleep that night.

I was always wondering if I would still be alive the next morning.

But I was lucky. There are much worse cases. The experience of Aldo Alexander Peña (a trans men who was brutally beaten by the police on 27 June) is one example.

This was clearly a case of abuse by the authorities. He had terrible injuries to his face and abdomen as well as fractures. After even though they had beaten him so brutally, they didn’t want to take him to get medical attention.

When we make a complaint, the authorities laugh at us. In general, they ignore our complaints or, in some rare cases, they suggest we get a police escort. But walking around with a policeman would be even more dangerous. Those who attack us would kill us and the police.

For the government, we are invisible.

So much so that they do not keep a record of crimes against the LGBTI community in El Salvador. Murders are simply categorised as affecting women or men, but nothing more. Hate crimes are not taken into account, nor are they investigated. The attackers are never prosecuted.

Of the 250 cases of attacks and murders against transgender people that we have recorded in our database, nobody has been brought to justice for any of them.

The government says that these attacks are a new phenomenon, but we know that this is not true. People have been killing us for decades.

The authorities have double standards when it comes to human rights in El Salvador.

Internationally, they present the country as being perfect with regards to the protection of the human rights of the LGBTI community. They talk of the recently created hotline and of the employment of transgender females in public organisations. The reality is that neither of these projects is working as they should and that despite there being more inclusion than before, the failure to investigate and prosecute acts of violence sends a dangerous message: that it is all right to attack LGBTI people.

I am pleased to see the progress made with regards to the human rights of the LGBTI community in many countries around the world, but I see that in El Salvador the situation is going backwards.

If we asked for same sex marriage here, I think we would start a new wave of murders.

We live in one of the most violent countries in the world, and here we are one of the communities most exposed to violence. We are constantly under attack.

The situation has become so dangerous that today only a few trans activists even dare to show their faces, as we are under constant threat and harassed by the security forces and criminal groups.

I am always afraid. My best friends have been shot dead, killed in their homes.

There are days when I don’t leave my house because I’m scared to go to work. But I keep on fighting because I want to live and I want things to change. To defend our rights and our dignity.

Amnesty International shares the concerns of the Salvadoran organisations and their call for investigation and justice for the crimes endured by members of the LGBTI community in El Salvador.

This blog was first published in the El Pais newspaper