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San Salvador, El Salvador – This year’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride parade that took place in June was a big day for Aldo Alexander Peña.
Peña was excited to march through the streets of the capital San Salvador for the first time since starting male hormone therapy, which has allowed him to claim the gender he identifies with, despite being born into a female body.
The march was peaceful and Peña was in high spirits as he hopped onto a bus with a friend to go home.
In El Salvador, buses can drop-off and pick-up passengers anywhere, but the driver refused to stop at Peña’s request. They got into an argument and the driver called the police.
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“There were eight or nine national police officers waiting for me when the bus stopped. They wouldn’t let me speak, started insulting me, calling me a lesbian, and put me in a headlock,” Peña told Al Jazeera.
“My friend begged them to stop, but they kicked me to the floor and started hitting her too,” recalled Peña, saying that he fainted soon after and regained consciousness only to find himself sitting handcuffed in the police station.
Peña is an activist with the non-governmental organisation (NGO) El Salvador Generation of Transgender Men (HT El Salvador). By coincidence, another activist witnessed the attack and alerted Peña’s colleagues from HT El Salvador, who went to the police station with a lawyer and representatives from the attorney general’s human rights office to free Peña.
But the assault had continued in the police station, so by the time they arrived, the 31-year-old had been severely beaten.
“There was blood coming out of my mouth and nose, and I could barely see. At one point, I heard my friend praying for my soul. She thought I was dead,” Peña said.
After several hours, Peña was taken to hospital where X-rays revealed a fractured eye socket and a broken jaw. A month later, his eyes are still bloodshot, he struggles to eat solid foods, and suffers from painful neck spasms. Prosecutors are investigating the case as attempted murder.
Hate crimes against El Salvador’s transgender community are increasing in the climate of absolute impunity and deep-seated prejudices.
In a country known for having one of the highest murder rates in the world due to endemic gang violence, the penal system does not specifically recognise crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity.
Latin America has the highest rates of violence against the LGBT community. Another NGO, Communicating and Training of Trans Women with HIV in El Salvador (COMCAVIS), has documented at least 500 cases of murder and assault against LGBT people since 1993. They say many more cases go unreported.
Already this year, 14 trans women have been murdered and another 13 have survived attempted murders, as compared with 14 murders in 2014 and 16 in 2013, according to COMCAVIS, which documents the crimes.
Many of the victims were shot in the head and their bodies brutally mutilated.
No one has ever been jailed.
Discrimination and intolerance
“The LGBT communities suffer many types of very serious discrimination in El Salvador, including intimidation, verbal and physical aggression, and arbitrary detention by municipal and national police,” David Morales, the attorney general for the defence of human rights, told Al Jazeera.
“We have documented many violent hate crimes, particularly the murder of trans women,” Morales said.
“There is an absolute indifference towards investigating and prosecuting these crimes, which has created a pattern of deliberate impunity that is totally unacceptable,” he added.
El Salvador, a nation of 5 million people, is one of the world’s most violent countries, and the trans community is one of its most vulnerable.
The country is deeply religious and conservative, with widespread societal and institutional intolerance towards sexual and gender identities that are different.
Although El Salvador has ratified several international anti-discrimination treaties and conventions, LGBT people are frequently denied access to basic healthcare, education, jobs and justice.
The life expectancy for trans women is just 35, according to the Latin American Trans Network. The lack of job opportunities forces many into prostitution, and more than one in four trans women are HIV-positive.
There was jubilation last year when the Supreme Court awarded trans people the right to vote.
But the same court recently rejected an appeal by a trans woman, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in the US, for the right to legally change her name.
A group of ultra-conservative legislators are currently campaigning to ban gay marriage under the constitution.
“While the move is unlikely to succeed, this type of discussion stimulates acts of aggression against the LGBT community,” Morales said.
There is growing concern that the murders are targeting LGBT activists specifically, Morales told Al Jazeera.
Francela Mendez, 29, a well-known trans activist, was found murdered on May 31 at a friend’s house in Sonsonate – 64km west of the capital. Her friend was also killed.
Despite her high-profile human rights work, police sources immediately linked the murder to drug trafficking, and rejected calls by several government officials and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights for the murder to be investigated as a possible hate crime.
The brutal murder two years ago of Tania Vasquez, another vocal trans activist, is another prominent example of this trend. She was shot in the head and her semi-naked body was discarded in a plastic bag in San Salvador in May 2013.
No one has been arrested for her murder despite international condemnation and a high-profile campaign by human rights groups. The case remains clouded in secrecy as the attorney general’s office has classified it as ‘reserved’, meaning no one is allowed access to the files.
The attorney general’s office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Karla Avelar, the director of COMCAVIS, has survived two attempted murders in her 37 years of life. She has dodged a total of 15 bullets and was recently kidnapped by a group of men who photographed her identification papers before letting her go.
“I survived. I am lucky, but we are being killed. We don’t have the right to life in El Salvador. There is no access to justice here, murders are not investigated, victims are labelled as criminals, and cases are archived,” Karla said.
Unlike his predecessor, the current president of El Salvador is yet to publicly condemn violence against the LGBT community.
But a handful of politicians from the ruling left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party are petitioning for reform of the penal code to recognise hate crimes motivated by gender and sexual orientation and demanding increased sentences for offenders.
For Peña, the psychological blows were the most cruel.
“I can’t stop thinking about insults, and now fear the police will come to my house or plant something [illegal] on me to punish me,” Peña said.
“I need justice. I want the officers who did this to be jailed so people know hate crimes will be punished.”