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September 30, 2015

LGBT Voices for Equality: El Salvador

In Her Words

"I came to the United States in 2013 through the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to denounce the El Salvadorian state for the lack of compromise for us, particular for the transgender community...At the end of the hearing, they asked if we wanted any kind of protections, I said to them that I didn’t want any kind of protection from the state because they are the ones who are murdering us. They are the ones who are hating us. They are the ones who are prosecuting us. I won’t let my murderer come to my home and know my home, know my people, know my family, know my friends."

-Nicole Santamaria, LGBTQI Human Rights Defender


El Salvador is a hotspot for gang violence and one of the deadliest countries in the world, recording 4,246 homicides between January and August of this year alone. In such a maelstrom of brutality, the LGBT community is markedly vulnerable, susceptible to widespread discrimination, marginalization, and murder.

Although there is no law criminalizing same-sex sexual activity and the country's government has ratified multiple international anti-discrimination treaties, little is done to protect the LGBT community from violence and discrimination. Thus far this year, 14 transgender women have been murdered. An additional 13 survived attempts on their lives. Criminals enjoy impunity for such attacks, boldly assaulting LGBT Salvadorans in public spaces, in clear view of witnesses. Police rarely, if ever, investigate. Attacks by officers themselves are not uncommon, leading many victims to not report bias-motivated crimes at all.

When criticized, officials point to some gestures of support for the LGBT community—such as the creation of the Sexual Diversity Division of the Secretary of Social Inclusion and an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet members of the LGBT community have seen little to no impact since their inception. Worse yet, assistance from foreign governments often doesn't reach those who need it the most, getting lost in a corrupt bureaucratic infrastructure.

LGBT Salvadorans hope the first step in combatting rampant homophobia and transphobia is to make sure that those offering aid know where it’s going. Through targeted support, real progress can be made to ensure the human rights of every member of El Salvador's LGBT community are protected.

"Activists want supporters to be aware of what happens with their funds. Because in my country there is a lot of corruption—so you must know who is getting those funds, and what they are supposed to be doing with them. In particular, get them to the grassroots organizations, because in the grassroots organizations is the truth, not in the government," says Nicole Santamaria, LGBTQI Human Rights Defender.

There is another potential avenue of change for human rights defenders combatting violence against the LGBT community to build upon. Salvadoran lawmakers are considering creating enhanced penalties for bias-motivated crimes against LGBT persons. Some on the ground called the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity language in hate crime legislation historic. Perhaps the move will open the door for safety and justice, something long missing from the lives of LGBT Salvadorans.

Recommendations for U.S. Action

·  Prioritize the advancement of the rights of LGBT people within the broader El Salvador country strategy.

- Urge lawmakers in San Salvador to pass pending proposals to enhance penalties for hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity.

·  The International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador, which conducts regional training for law enforcement on hate crime, should expand its hate crimes training to reach a greater number of law enforcement personnel in El Salvador and conduct regular follow-up with prior participants.   

·  The U.S. Embassy in San Salvador should continue its work to increase the ability of civil society and the LGBT movement to influence change in El Salvador.

·  The U.S. Congress should raise the issue of human rights in El Salvador in oversight hearings and support U.S. leadership on human rights and LGBT rights, including through legislation.