March 27, 2017 at 1:11 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
OAS commission holds hearing on anti-LGBT violence in El Salvador

Francela Méndez was a member of Colectivo Alejandría who was killed at a friend’s home in 2015. The transgender rights organization has hung this tribute to her at its offices in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last week held a hearing on anti-LGBT violence and hate crimes in El Salvador.

Bianka Rodríguez of Comunicado y Capacitando a Mujeres Trans, a Salvadoran advocacy group known by the acronym COMCAVIS, told commissioners during the March 21 hearing in D.C. that at least 600 people have been victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation or gender identity since 2004.

Statistics from COMCAVIS and Asociación para Impulsar el Desarrollo Humano (ASPIDH) Arcoiris Trans, another Salvadoran advocacy group, indicate roughly two dozen trans people were reported killed in El Salvador in 2015. One of these victims was Francela Méndez, a prominent trans rights advocate who was a board member of Colectivo Alejandría, a trans advocacy group that is based in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador.

Three trans women were killed in San Luis Talpa, a municipality in La Paz Department, last month. Rodríguez said eight trans women have fled El Salvador since these murders.

“The violence that El Salvador faces is a problem that affects all sectors of society,” she said. “LGTBI (lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex) people aren’t immune to this problem.”

‘We find ourselves in a cycle of violence’

The Organization of American States, which is based in D.C., created the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1959 as a way to promote human rights throughout the Western Hemisphere. Anti-LGBT violence and discrimination in El Salvador is among the LGBT-specific issues the commission examined last week.

El Salvador, which borders Guatemala and Honduras, has one of the world’s highest murder rates. Anti-LGBT rhetoric from politicians and religious figures, discrimination, poverty and a lack of educational opportunities are among the factors that have made LGBT Salvadorans particularly vulnerable to violence.

A report from El Salvador’s Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights indicates 52 percent of trans women it surveyed said they received death threats. A press release the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released on March 23 indicates 17 of the more than 40 reports of “serious crimes” against LGBT people that have been committed in the Western Hemisphere so far this year come from El Salvador.

Rodríguez said trans women’s family members frequently commit acts of violence against them because of their gender identity. She also told the commission that gang members routinely extort money from those who engage in sex work.

“We find ourselves in a cycle of violence, discrimination and criminalization,” said Rodríguez.

LGBT advocates frequent targets

Rodríguez and others who testified at the hearing said LGBT rights advocates in El Salvador are frequently threatened and attacked.

Ambar Alfaro of ASPIDH Arcoiris said an activist was carjacked last October as she left a San Salvador mall and held against her will for nearly an hour. She pointed out a group of four “unknown men” with guns carjacked COMCAVIS Director Karla Avelar during the same month, demanded her identification and her cell phone and threatened her.

Alex Peña of Generación de Hombres Trans de El Salvador, a group that advocates on behalf of trans Salvadoran men, said a group of police officers attacked him in 2015 after he had a confrontation with a bus driver while returning home from a San Salvador Pride celebration. Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad (ESMULES) Executive Director Andrea Ayala told the Blade during a previous interview that she suspects police officers broke into her office after she and other advocates publicly denounced the attack.

“The state has not adopted any type of measures that protect us and guarantee that we can do our work without risk,” said Alfaro.

Avelar did not attend the hearing because she was unable to obtain a visa that would have allowed her to travel to the U.S.

Government defends response to anti-LGBT violence

Representatives of the Salvadoran government who testified at the hearing defended the country’s efforts to combat anti-LGBT violence and discrimination.

Cruz Torres, director of the Office of Diversity in El Salvador’s Ministry of Social Inclusion, noted he specifically works on LGBT issues. He also pointed out the country’s government has directed public agencies to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Salvadoran lawmakers in 2015 approved an amendment to the country’s legal code that enhances penalties for anti-LGBT hate crimes.

Three of the five police officers who Peña accused of attacking him were convicted last October and were sentenced to prison. A State Department spokesperson told the Blade last month that it “supports” the ongoing investigation into the murders of the three trans women in San Luis Talpa.

“For the country of El Salvador, this hearing held to talk about the situation of the human rights of the LGTBI community in our country constitutes an important space to highlight so many of the advances that we have made in this area as well as the challenges that all of us have,” said Ambassador Carlos Calles, who is El Salvador’s permanent OAS representative.

El Salvador, Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad, gay news, Washington Blade

Alex Peña of Generación de Hombres Trans de El Salvador was allegedly attacked by police officers in June 2015 while returning home from a Pride celebration in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Photo courtesy of Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad)

Wendy Acevedo, who is one of El Salvador’s alternative OAS representatives, acknowledged LGBT and intersex Salvadorans “confront vulnerabilities.”

“We are receptive to listening to this commission,” she said.

Kerlin Belloso of the Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho, a Salvadoran human rights group known by the acronym FESPAD, said the hate crimes law has “not had any affect in practice.” She and other advocates who testified also pointed out stigma and mistreatment and a lack of urgency on the part of law enforcement and public officials are among the barriers that LGBT Salvadorans face when they are victims of hate crimes and discrimination.

“The state’s inaction is almost absolute,” said Alfaro.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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