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When Camila Díaz Córdova, a transgender woman, was found on a highway in the capital of El Salvador in the early morning of January 31st 2019, she was barely alive. She had severe injuries to her abdomen, face, back and pelvis: the result, it would turn out, of a severe beating that she took from police officers after she was picked up, handcuffed and loaded into their patrol car.
The three officers then threw her out of their moving vehicle and left her for dead on the highway. She died a few days later in hospital.
Those policemen were just convicted for aggravated homicide and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a judge in the country’s capital San Salvador. It is the first conviction ever for the killing of a transgender person in this tiny, troubled Central American nation’s history, and a sign of hope that murders like these will no longer go unpunished. That those behind her killing were police officers also points to the corruption and violence present in law enforcement.
The conviction could be a turning point for El Salvador, where hateful violence against based on gender identity or sexual orientation is common. Seven trans women and two gay men were murdered between October 2019 and April 2020 alone, according to Human Rights Watch.
One of the victims — a 44 year old transgender woman called Victoria Pineda — was crucified, says a rights organization in El Salvador, known by its Spanish initials COMCAVIS Trans. Some 600 LGBTQ people have been killed in El Salvador since 1993, according to the group.
Activists welcomed the conviction even though they felt it didn’t go far enough, as the murder wasn’t categorized as a hate crime.
“This should motivate the LGBQT community to denounce hate crimes, threats and persecutions against them because most of these crimes are fermented by the fact that state institutions don’t respond well,” Bianka Rodriguez COMCAVIS Trans told VICE News.
Díaz was a victim of the United States government as well as her country’s own police. She was one of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to make a break for the United States – in her case, in an attempt to escape the violence and intimidation she faced at home due to her gender identity. She reached the U.S in August 2017, after undertaking the treacherous journey there from her home in San Salvador.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities detained her and deported her in November of the same year, according to Human Rights Watch, and she was killed just over a year later.
“A toxic combination of deep-seated discrimination, sky-high levels of violence and government inaction make El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America for trans women,” Carolina Jimenez, deputy director of research for the Americas at Amnesty International, told VICE News.
El Salvador has for years been plagued by some of the highest homicide rates in the world, fed by gang-related killings between the notorious Marasalvatrucha and Barrio 18. In 2015, El Salvador was the world’s most murderous nation.
Since President Nayib Bukele took power in June 2019, homicides and disappearances have fallen dramatically. Bukele has taken the credit for that, which he says is a result of a zero-tolerance approach to the gangs, but other observers, such as the International Crisis Group suggest that reductions in killings are as likely due to “quiet, informal understandings between gangs and the government.”
Cover: In this Feb. 12, 2020 photo, trans woman Leticia shows a photograph of Camila Díaz who died on Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)