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October 27, 2016

Over a Year Later, Two Officers Convicted in Brutal Attack on Transgender Man in El Salvador

By John Michael Anzilotti

Earlier this month, two National Police Force officers in El Salvador were convicted following the June 2015 attack on Aldo Alexander Peña, a transgender Salvadoran man. The ruling represents a step forward for the LGBT community—but only a step. Although two officers were convicted, the primary suspect in the beating and the remaining officers involved were set free.

Peña was assaulted on his way home from the San Salvador Pride March. He and a local bus driver were involved in a small altercation over where the bus would drop him off, resulting in the driver notifying the nearest police station. When Peña exited the bus, he was confronted by police officers, who began spewing transphobic insults.

After Peña was forced into a headlock, his friend attempted to step in and was subsequently attacked. Both were thrown to the ground. Over the next 27 hours, Peña was transported to the police station and severely beaten again, never receiving treatment for his injuries. The assault resulted in a broken eye socket and a fractured skull. These severe injuries indicate that the attacks “were motivated exclusively by the hate that these police officers had against Alex because he is a trans man,” according to Andrea Ayala, executive director of Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad (ESMULES).

The attack prompted a year-long legal battle between Peña and the officers that assaulted him. On October 6th, the judge rendered his judgment after hours of deliberation, sentencing two of the officers to four years in prison for the injuries to Peña and his friend.

Peña's case sheds light on the daily violence the LGBT community faces in El Salvador. In late 2015, lawmakers in El Salvador approved enhanced hate crime penalties for killings or threats based on a victim's race, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and gender identity. This is a welcome progress in the penal code. However, improving the situation for LGBT Salvadorans requires more work to reduce attacks on the community and consistent enforcement.

When Human Rights First traveled to El Salvador in June 2015, activists explained that the hate crime penalties are rarely utilized despite many cases of possible hate crimes against LGBT people. Nonetheless, rulings such as this one are hope for progress in the fight for LGBT equality in El Salvador, and advocates like Alex Peña are leading the way. After the judge’s ruling, Peña said: “I still have the courage to go on” in pursuit of justice.