SAN LUIS TALPA, El Salvador - El Salvador is a dangerous place to be a trans woman, but its most terrifying place of all is a coastal town called San Luis Talpa.
There, trans women face humiliating intimidation from the police and outright contempt from the mayor. But their deadliest adversary is the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang, which banished them from the town, sowing terror with a campaign of murder and brutal attacks.
“Trans women there, we cannot take refuge from anyone. The police hate us, the mayor hates us and the gang simply wants to kill us,” said Nube*, a survivor of gang attacks who is seeking asylum in Europe. She asked not to use her real name for fear of retaliation.
While trans women face violence and harassment across the country, nowhere has it been as vicious as in San Luis Talpa, a town of some 30,000 people less than an hour south of the capital. Beginning with the murders of three trans women in less than 72 hours, MS-13 forced all trans women to flee under threat of death: 11 left the town between 2017 and 2019 in an unprecedented exodus that shocked the country's LGBTQ community.
In its first report on hate crimes against the LGBTQ population, El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman found that 52.5 percent of trans women living in El Salvador had been threatened with death by the gangs.
The report, published in 2017, showed that since 2009 violence against the LGTBQ community has worsened in El Salvador. In that year alone, 23 people from the community were murdered. Violence surged again in 2016 and 2017, the report said, singling out the murders in San Luis Talpa.
MS-13's attack on the town’s trans women community began with a Valentine Day’s dance in the town square in 2017. Nube recalled in an interview with VICE World News that she wore a tight black tube dress for the Saturday night party and let her best friend Elizabeth Castillo do her hair and makeup.
Going to the central plaza almost always brought harassment, Nube said in the interview she gave earlier this year before she went into exile.
She recalled the usual humiliation that the police would put them through each year during the town’s patron saint festivities in November, which are rung in with dancing in the streets.
“When trans girls arrived wearing dresses, the policemen would lift our clothes in front of everybody and make us do squats before entering," said Nube. "They would pull our dresses up our backs in front of everyone and say they were checking for weapons, while they would make fun of us.”
The night of February 18, Nube and Elizabeth each had a drink of cheap alcohol and left for the central plaza. There, they waited in a corner for two other trans friends, Diana and Yasuri, to arrive. As the music played in the background, Nube grew restless. “If you want, stay here, but I'm going to dance," she said, describing the conversation four years ago.
Elizabeth offered another drink to her friend and they began to dance.
Half an hour later, as Nube and Elizabeth were dancing, a burst of gunfire in the distance stopped the music. Diana and Yasuri had been walking to the party when three MS-13 gang members in a gray van shot them at point-blank range.
"They killed them! They killed them!" people shouted.
The following night, Elizabeth wanted to go to the wake for her two friends. Nube refused to accompany her because a rumor was already spreading that MS-13 wanted to kill them all. Elizabeth said goodbye and left alone in a motorcycle taxi.
She never arrived. Elizabeth disappeared that night and her body was found a day later on a dirt road on the outskirts of town, her hands and feet bound, showing signs of torture and blows to the face.
MS-13 had sent the message that it no longer wanted to see any more trans women in San Luis Talpa.
Over the next two years, the 11 remaining trans women in San Luis Talpa fled one by one as the gang attacked, raped, and tortured them.
The MS-13 gang left their mark on a wall in San Luis Talpa. (Photo: Carlos Barrera)
Behind the gang's hatred of trans women was a fight over drug sales, said another of the survivors who asked to be called Blanca to protect her safety.
Trans women in San Luis Talpa used to stay in the central plaza late into the night, some to offer sex work, Blanca said. The gang saw their presence as an opportunity to force them to distribute drugs and serve as lookouts, and MS-13 made its demand at a meeting in early 2017, according to a friend who described the event to Blanca.
“The gang members said that whoever did not accept had a couple of days to leave. And none of them accepted. That is why they began to kill them,” said Blanca in an interview from San Salvador, the capital, where she lives now.
Trans women across the country have been forced to leave their homes, according to the report "Escape and Survive" by the Salvadoran organization Comcavis Trans. The group supported 140 cases of forced displacement in just 2018 and 2019. Of those, 45 percent were trans women and 31 percent were gay men. The gangs accounted for 62 percent of the threats and police another 21 percent in 2019, the report found.
“El Salvador is a country that kills women, persecutes the feminine, blocks it, ridicules it, offends it or uses everything that is feminine as an insult. And this also impacts trans women,” says Amalia Leiva, a spokeswoman for Comcavis Trans in an interview with VICE World News.
After Elizabeth's death, the trans women of San Luis Talpa hid. “It was as if the earth had swallowed them”, said Nube. “People said things to me: ‘They say that the next one is you'. There were many rumors. People, friends, acquaintances, told me ‘They say they’re going to kill you because you’re one of that little group.’"
Still she stayed, until the gang found her. On the night of November 11, 2019, MS-13 gang members intercepted Nube and took her into an alley. There they kicked and punched her in the face until she fainted. When she woke up, she was naked.
Nube did not know for how long she was unconscious, but when she woke up, the gang members were still there. “Run, let's count to ten and from there we will start looking for you,” they said. “If we find you, we will kill you.”
Nube ran for several blocks until a neighbor let her into a house. There, she passed out again and woke up in a hospital with serious injuries. Her doctors told her that in addition to beating her, the gang had raped her. After that, she was sheltered by a human rights group that helped her process her asylum request to a European country.
In a country where the impunity rate for murder hovers around 90 percent, the San Luis Talpa killings were different. In February, three MS-13 gang members were sentenced to 60 and 66 years in prison for the murders of Diana, Yasuri and Elizabeth. The judge determined that the homicides were hate crimes directed at the trans women’s gender expression.
According to human rights organizations that defend the LGBTQ community, between 1993 and 2021 there have been more than 600 such murders. Almost none has received justice as a hate crime.
The case of Diana, Yasuri and Elizabeth is only the second to end in a conviction for a hate crime involving a different gender expression, after pressure for an investigation from human rights groups.
In the first case, three police officers were convicted in July 2020 of murdering a trans woman on January 31, 2019 while the victim was offering sex work in San Salvador. According to the investigation, the policemen captured and tortured her and then dumped her body in a ravine on the outskirts of the city.
The history of violence against trans women in San Luis Talpa does not seem to have changed the attitude of the mayor, Salvador Alejandro Menéndez, a paramilitary during El Salvador’s brutal civil war during the 1980s.
"I don't get along with those people," he said in an interview with VICE World News last month in his office, referring to the few transgender women who have returned. “More than a year ago I ordered them to be taken out of the park.
“How can you believe that two men are going to be there kissing, right in front of children. No. That can't be.”
It wasn't the gang threats that led to the exodus, he said, adding that the murders had nothing to do with hatred towards their gender expression.
"After some of them were killed years ago, an organization came and offered them to go to Mexico and they took advantage of that [to leave],” Menéndez said. “But it is not because they were threatened or anything like that." He offered no evidence for his claim.
Some of the trans women have returned to San Luis Talpa, either because they failed to win legal refugee status in other countries or because they missed their families.
They are trying to support themselves, and they've created a small group to play softball and form a network with other groups in San Salvador and neighboring municipalities. Many of them hide and disguise their gender expression in a place where they are hated. “Returning to live in San Luis Talpa is returning to live in fear,” said M., a trans woman who came back after she failed to win asylum in Costa Rica.
Neighbors treat the community of trans women with contempt, the government has abandoned them, and the gang still threatens them.
“We’re fighting against all that in the hope that one day this place can change,” she said.