A video showing the gruesome torture and beating of a transgender woman last month inspired outrage throughout Brazil and returned the world’s attention to the country’s struggle to stem anti-LGBT violence, specifically the rampant killing of transgender people.
The victim, 42-year-old Dandara dos Santos, was beaten, tortured, and shot to death in Fortaleza, the coastal capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará, on Feb. 15. The video of her torture was uploaded to YouTube on March 3 and quickly spread on social media throughout the country.
Dandara’s harrowing death is hardly an exception in Brazil. Last year a record 144 transgender people were murdered there. For context, the next-highest trans-related murder rate was in Mexico, where 52 transgender people were killed in 2016, followed by the United States, where 23 people were killed. Fourteen people were killed in both Colombia and Venezuela, according to Transrespect.org.
Brazil has the highest rates of trans-related murders in the world – about 16.4 percent higher than any other country – and according to Grupo Gay da Bahia, Brazil’s oldest association for the defense of the human rights of LGBTQ persons, nearly 1,600 Brazilians were killed in hate-motivated attacks over the past five years. The group says that by its calculations, a gay or transgender person is killed almost every day in the country of 200 million.
In the video of the incident, published on March 3, three attackers are seen throwing Dos Santos in a wheelbarrow and bashing her head with a large rock. According to the authorities, she was later taken to a nearby street, shot twice in the face, and beaten, though the killing is not shown in the video.
The police in Brazil have arrested three teenagers and two men in the connection with the attack. Officers said that the video helped them identify the suspects, but noted they were still looking for others.
This fatal event highlights the ongoing struggle for transgender people in South America’s most populous nation, where courts have taken a more progressive tack towards LGBTQ issues in recent years, including legalizing same-sex marriage in 2013, but where anti-LGBTQ-related violence remains on the rise.
As the country’s politics swing harshly back to the right after 14 years of liberal rule, activists and humanitarians worry things stand to get worse. The emboldened “Bible, beef and bullets” caucus, which has aligned itself with President Michel Temer’s government, has not been shy about its intentions to roll back recent LGBTQ advancements.
Flavio Alves, a gay Brazilian-American filmmaker who was granted political asylum in 1998 after facing multiple death threats related to a book he wrote about gays and lesbian soldiers in the military, said that despite laws put in place in recent years, LGBT people enjoy virtually no real protection in Brazil.
Alves said the problem is that police don’t enforce the law and are often themselves prejudiced. But he attributes another cultural component to the country’s persistent struggle with anti-LGBT violence — machismo culture. As a result, he said, the anti-gay violence remains very much embedded in Brazilian culture.
“Violence is a chronic problem in Brazil, and anyone is vulnerable because they are not protected under the law. It is even worse in Northern Brazil, where Dandara was murdered,” Alves told VICE News. Still, it can be hard for outsiders to reconcile the country’s widespread violence toward gay and trans people with its inclusive traditions, like Mardi Gras and São Paulo’s famous gay pride parades, something Alves said he struggled to explain to an American judge while seeking asylum.
“It was difficult to explain that yes, we do have laws like the U.S. that protect these vulnerable groups, but they’re not enforced,” he added.
The Ceara state government issued a statement condemning the assailants and said the killers would be punished.