April 20, 2017 at 9:00 pm EDT | by Mary Kenah and Caitlin Anderson
Uniformed injustice: Police and military target LGBT Salvadorans

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)

In a country such as El Salvador, where the homicide and impunity rates are some of the highest in the world, it might seem easy to write off violence toward LGBT people as commensurate with the experience of the general heterosexual, cisgender population. Thousands of Salvadorans have fled the country’s powerful street gangs over the last several years. Salvadoran leaders, with aid from the United States, have responded to the gangs with an iron fist, deploying militarized security forces to fight the insurgency. Our recent study at the Georgetown University Law School’s Human Rights Institute shows that these state forces, members of the police and military, are inflicting violence marked by homophobia and transphobia upon LGBT people, who then face unique barriers in their attempts to obtain justice.

Interviews with over 50 LGBT victims, NGO leaders and government officials revealed that violence from the police and military follow general patterns. Law enforcement officers often arbitrarily stop and become violent with LGBT people whom they perceive to have a non-conforming sexual orientation or gender identity. Ordinary encounters turn violent when police and military realize that an individual is transgender either by viewing their identification card, which transgender Salvadorans are currently unable to change to match their actual gender identity, or by requiring them to lift their shirt, which, for transgender men, reveals their chest binding.

The type of violence inflicted on LGBT people is often sexual or gendered. Many LGBT people told us about being raped by police and soldiers. One travesti individual reported being raped four times by four different soldiers, one of whom held her at gunpoint. Others reported being verbally and physically harassed, threatened, extorted, beaten and raped. A trans man, Alex Peña, was jailed and hospitalized after he was attacked by 15 police officers on his way home from a pride parade.

Alex’s case turned into a rallying point for the Salvadoran LGBT community. His case went to court, although not until after he was acquitted of the bogus charge against him. Only two people were convicted, and with a third charge pending the case is still ongoing. Meanwhile, the Salvadoran human rights defenders who supported him were harassed by the police. Only two of Alex’s attackers were ultimately convicted, receiving light sentences.

But most LGBT victims never even see the inside of a courtroom. Many are too frightened of retribution to report, or believe that reporting is futile. For those who do try to report crimes, police often refuse to accept their complaints, or worse. Transgender women reported being ridiculed or blamed when attempting to report a crime to the police. Ambar Alfaro, a transgender activist, told us about trying to report a crime when the police officer locked himself in a room with her, demanded oral sex, and, upon her refusal, proceeded to masturbate in front of her. Prosecutors often shelve cases brought by LGBT persons, and when cases are brought, fail to apply available legal tools, such as the hate crimes statute. Effective data collection on crimes against LGBT people makes it difficult to fully assess the situation.

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

Alex Peña of Generación 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)

The combination of violence and impunity have driven many LGBT people to flee El Salvador. In February alone, 29 LGBT people left the country in the wake of the murders of three transgender women.

The United States has the power to influence the situation for LGBT people in El Salvador. The federal government provides funding to El Salvador through a statutory program called the Alliance for Prosperity, which was meant to mitigate the flow of migrants from Northern Triangle states. Fifty percent of this aid is contingent on compliance with human rights standards, in particular, holding members of the police and military accountable for human rights abuses. The State Department has to recertify El Salvador every year. If the State Department does not take into account the abuses perpetrated by security forces against LGBT people in their next review, they will ensure that, contrary to the aim of the program, American taxpayers are paying for the brutal treatment that forces so many Salvadorans to leave their homes and seek refuge in the United States.

The study will be presented during a launch and panel event at the Georgetown University Law Center on April 21 from 5-7 p.m. Refreshments will be provided. To RSVP email mek119@georgetown.edu.

Mary Kenah and Caitlin Anderson are researchers with Georgetown University Law Center's Human Rights Institute.

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