January 5, 2018 at 9:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers and Ernesto Valle
Trans women struggle to survive in El Salvador city

Three transgender women were killed in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, in February 2017. Gang-related violence has made the small city one of the most dangerous parts of the Central American country. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Andrea, a transgender woman who lives in San Luis Talpa, a small city that is near El Salvador’s main international airport, was walking to her mother’s home on Aug. 29 when a man stopped his motorbike and began to yell at her.

Andrea was talking with her friend on her cell phone when the man confronted her. Three cars stopped on the highway on which she was walking a few minutes later and men with guns stepped out.

“I ran, ran into the hallway of a small school,” Andrea told the Washington Blade a few weeks later during an interview at a restaurant in the Salvadoran capital of El Salvador, which is roughly 45 minutes northwest of San Luis Talpa. “I was scared.”

“Thank God they didn’t kill me,” added Andrea. “I don’t leave my house anymore. I don’t leave because I am completely afraid of the danger.”

MS-13 forces trans women to traffic drugs

El Salvador, a small Central American country that borders Guatemala and Honduras, has one of the world’s highest per capita murder rates.

Violence and discrimination based on gender identity remains commonplace in El Salvador. The murder of three trans women — Yasuri Orellana, 24, Daniela Flores, 27, and Elizabeth Castillo, 23 — in San Luis Talpa in February 2017 underscores the risks that Andrea and other trans Salvadorans face on a daily basis.

Isabel, a trans activist who lived in San Luis Talpa from 2010-2014, told the Blade as Andrea listened that the three trans women who were murdered were “known.”

“It is a small town,” said Isabel, referring to San Luis Talpa.

Violence linked to the MS-13 street gang has made San Luis Talpa and the surrounding area one of the most dangerous parts of El Salvador. Isabel said MS-13 last February told trans women they would be killed if they did not traffic drugs for them.

The Blade interviewed Isabel and Andrea in San Salvador because local sources said it was too dangerous for reporters to travel to San Luis Talpa. Isabel and Andrea also asked the Blade not to use their real names or disclose their identities in order to protect their safety.

“I live in San Luis Talpa,” said Andrea.

Police, soldiers also target trans women

The Justice Department last July in a press release announced an MS-13 member who allegedly killed three LGBT people in El Salvador is in U.S. custody.

The announcement — which coincided with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ trip to El Salvador — noted the gang member shot three people in La Paz Department “who were believed to have committed extortions without authorization from MS-13.” A Justice Department spokesperson at the time declined to tell the Blade whether the MS-13 member is a suspect in the killing of the three trans women, but San Luis Talpa is located in La Paz Department.

Isabel said trans women who live in San Luis Talpa lack access to education and “dignified” employment. She told the Blade that police officers and soldiers also target them.

She said they “surround” the perimeter of municipal celebrations and Halloween parties in order to prevent armed men from entering. Isabel said trans women “are outside of these dances and we are talking, doing our thing.”

Isabel told the Blade that police officers often proposition them for sex.

“What do you prefer,” she asked hypothetically. “That they don’t hit us or that we feel better that she (a trans woman) prefers to have sex and not get hit.”

“Exactly,” said Andrea.

Isabel told the Blade that street gangs and other “collective groups” do “the same thing” as police officers and soldiers.

“They call you outside of the dance and if you do not want to leave you are going to have to face the consequences when you leave,” she said. “It is a mortal sin to deny your body to a leader of these gangs.”

Andrea told the Blade that authorities often dismiss trans women when they file a complaint.

“They smile and say that you like it, it’s what you like,” she said. “Why are you crying?”

Isabel noted Castillo’s body was burned without its eyes before it was thrown onto a highway. Isabel told the Blade that machismo, misogyny, a lack of respect for women and religious fundamentalism are among the factors that contribute to the brutality of the killing of trans women in El Salvador.

“There is no value of life,” she said.

Authorities have ‘done’ nothing to investigate murders

The Salvadoran government insists it is fighting violence and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

An amendment to the country’s legal code that lawmakers approved in 2015 enhances penalties for anti-LGBT hate crimes. Three of the five police officers who Alex Peña of Generación de Hombres Trans de El Salvador, a group that advocates on behalf of trans Salvadoran men, accused of attacking him after a 2015 Pride celebration in San Salvador were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Cruz Torres, director of the Office of Diversity in El Salvador’s Ministry of Social Inclusion, told the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights last March during a D.C. hearing on anti-LGBT violence in El Salvador that the government has directed public agencies to stop discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. He also noted he specifically works on LGBT issues.

“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 representative to the Organization of American States, which created the commission in 1959.

Andrea, left, is a transgender woman who lives in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, eats lunch at a restaurant in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador on Sept. 23, 2017. She asked the Washington Blade not to use her real name and disclose her identity because of anti-trans violence in her hometown. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A Salvadoran trans advocacy group told the Blade this week that eight gang members have been detained in connection with the murders of the trans women in San Luis Talpa, but authorities have not classified them as hate crimes.

Isabel said the police and prosecutors have “not done” anything to investigate them. She also told the Blade that two of the three trans women who were murdered in San Luis Talpa last February were killed in “broad daylight” near a municipal police station.

“When a trans woman dies, she is responsible, she asked for it, she put herself in a situation, she, she, she,” said Isabel. “And she is the only one who is responsible.”

‘I am very afraid’

Isabel said more than half a dozen trans women fled San Luis Talpa in 2017. She told the Blade that she and her colleagues “know nothing” about a dozen others.

As for Andrea, she said she has cut her hair in order to change her appearance. She told the Blade when asked whether she would like to leave San Luis Talpa that no organization has helped her.

“I am very afraid,” said Andrea.

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