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January 18, 2017

Creating a More Inclusive El Salvador

By Nicole Santamaria, Guest Author

Nearly two years ago, I was forced to leave my beloved country of El Salvador. I worked for the Colectivo Alejandría, an organization that advocates on behalf of the human rights of LGBTI people and trans people in particular. For years, I watched as members of the Salvadoran LGBTI community, many of them my friends and colleagues, were murdered. As an intersex and trans woman activist, I feared for my life. I made the very difficult decision to flee and seek asylum in the United States.

In 2015, my dear friend and colleague Francela Méndez, a tireless trans activist with the Colectivo Alejandría, was assassinated. Her murder was never solved, but instead linked to narcotrafficking without a thorough investigation into whether her gender identity or activism was a factor.

As Human Rights First details in its brief, “Bias-Motivated Violence Against LGBT people in El Salvador,” such human rights violations against LGBTI individuals are the norm. The LGBTI community in El Salvador lives in daily fear of violence and discrimination. COMCAVIS TRANS, an LGBT human rights organization, tracked 14 murders of LGBT Salvadorans between January and May 2016. It also documented several cases of torture, rape, and violence.

In a country with 95 percent impunity for murder, these cases are rarely investigated and LGBTI Salvadorans do not enjoy equal access to justice. Trans people are ridiculed and revictimized when they report violence and discrimination to the authorities. In fact, members of the police force are often responsible for or complicit in violence and discrimination.

In 2015, my country added enhanced hate crime penalties to the penal code for murders and threats based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other listed categories. However, murders of LGBT people are still not investigated within the hate crimes framework.

Over the years, many LGBTI people have been forced to flee. While I am fortunately now in the asylum process in the United States, I wish I had never been forced to leave the country I love.

Groups such as the Colectivo Alejandría, COMCAVIS TRANS, ASPIDH-ARCOIRIS, and others are tracking violence, denouncing violations, and sensitizing law enforcement personnel to the human rights of LGBTI people. They work with limited resources and in a hostile climate.

Through its embassy and other outlets, the United States has helped improve the situation for LGBTI people in El Salvador. It has, for example, organized a hate crimes training for law enforcement officers at the International Law Enforcement Academy.

The U.S. government should further leverage its influence to support marginalized populations, including LGBTI people. The United States should bolster the efforts of civil society to track violence and sensitize law enforcement. It should also engage at the highest levels with Salvadoran officials to ensure that marginalized communities are protected.

These efforts are crucial to creating a more inclusive El Salvador, one where people like me are not forced to flee the country they love because of who they are or whom they love.