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Transphobic violence haunts the towns of El Salvador

. Feb 02, 2020
el salvador lgbt LGBTQ demonstration in San Salvador. Photo: AI/via Getty

When the discussion moves to gender, homosexuality, and civil rights in El Salvador, one must be aware of the risks and social rejection in one of the most conservative countries in Latin America.

Home to just over 6 million people—almost half of the population of the city of São Paulo—the Central American country has one of the world’s worst violence rates outside of warzones, with 46 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. But if you are both Salvadoran and a member of the LGBTQ community, your chances of being targeted by violent crimes are much higher, and your individual rights are denied on a daily basis.

</p> <p>Hell-bent on solving the violence issue—which defined last year&#8217;s presidential election that culminated in the victory of 38-year-old Nayib Bukele, El Salvador&#8217;s youngest head of state in history—the country has little to no interest in pushing progressive policies to support those individuals of non-binary gender.&nbsp;</p> <p>The blame for this ultra-conservative culture comes from the El Salvador&#8217;s colonial roots. With Spain dominating Central America, Catholicism spread like wildfire around the region. Eighty percent of Salvadorans define themselves as Catholic; the number jumps to 97 percent when we count all Christians.</p> <p>The violence suffered by those who do not fit the country&#8217;s conservative standards of sexuality is significant. Trans-rights organization Comcavis says that at least 600 transgender people were killed in El Salvador since 1993 at the hands of violence from organized crime gangs known as <em>pandillas</em>.&nbsp;</p> <h2><em>Pandilla</em> Law</h2> <p>Daily life in El Salvador is a crossfire for many citizens, caught in between a bitter war between two rival criminal groups: Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. In this bloody milieu, LGBTQ individuals are regularly targeted—a tragic trend witnessed across Central America.</p> <p>The situation has already become an epidemic. A letter of repudiation from NGO Humans Right First, sent to the U.S. ambassador in El Salvador, Jean Elizabeth Manes, was unable to shed a broad light on the situation of abuse in the country or create effective responses from international organizations. The letter was drafted after three transgender women were brutally murdered by &#8220;unknown assailants.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>Carmen Valeria is a journalist who covers human rights and LGBTQ issues in El Salvador. She told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that the issue is a delicate challenge for public and private actors. “Covering these topics implies putting transgender people at risk further, as they open the cases widely. The challenge is to cover this abuse without exposing this population further,” she says.&nbsp;</p> <p>Suffering from family, public and institutional rejection, LGBTQ individuals in El Salvador see showing their faces as an invitation to threats and consequences. Ms. Valeria says one of her sources even dropped out of university after taking part in a documentary about diversity in Central America.&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, along with many fellow members of the LGBTQ community, the source found asylum abroad. Amnesty International says that 136 transgender individuals left the region to escape violence between 2012 and 2017. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) highlights this trend in a detailed report released at the end of 2017.</p> <h2>The influence of the church</h2> <p>El Salvador is currently ranked 81st in Reporters Without Borders&#8217; (RSF) global press freedom rankings, which compounds this problem of covering LGBTQ violence. “The relationship between <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/11/30/latin-american-catholic-church-child-abuse-scandals/">religion, society and the state</a> is very close. The country is secular according to the Constitution, but that&#8217;s just on paper.”</p> <p>“There are civil representatives who use the Bible to govern. They once carried the image of the Virgin Mary into our Legislative Assembly. This is not normal in a state that claims to be secular,” she says. Brazilian readers may notice parallels with the country&#8217;s own constitutional non-religiosity.</p> <p>Ms. Valeria explains that there is a cycle within society that, in one way or another, passes through the &#8220;filter&#8221; of the church. Poor communities are becoming controlled by Evangelical organizations, which submit poorer classes to the sermons of preachers, including political manipulation.&nbsp;</p> <p>Curiously, members of the <em>pandillas</em> are only allowed to leave the gang if they convert to Evangelical Christianity, often serving as pastors inside prisons. Anyone who tries to cut ties with the Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18 without following this step inevitably ends up murdered.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the middle-class and Salvadoran elite are more influenced by the Catholic Church, which wields significant political and financial strength in the country. “Politicians, powerful families, big businessmen … most of these are representatives of the Catholic Church. This greatly interferes with decision and law-making in the country. And not only for <a href="https://www.amnestyusa.org/el-salvador-must-do-more-to-protect-lgbt-rights/">LGBTQ rights</a>, but also for women, for abortion,” she adds.</p> <p>At the time of her interview with <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, Ms. Valeria said that a young transgender woman had recently been murdered by three police officers, in what she classified as a &#8220;common hate crime.&#8221;&nbsp;

 
Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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