SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — When three transgender women were murdered within 72 hours in El Salvador back in February, local activists were shaken but, sadly, not surprised. The string of murders was just the latest threat of violence against the country’s increasingly vulnerable LGBTI community.
“They’ve put out an order to get rid of all of us,” Sebastian Cerritos said. His colleagues sat in silence, motionless as Cerritos spoke. “The gangs in one area here have said: We will kill all trans people here.”
Cerritos is a coordinator for Astrans LGBTI, an LGBTI charity based in El Salvador, and he has every reason to be concerned. El Salvador is considered the most dangerous place in the world outside of a war zone — earlier this year, the country celebrated its first homicide-free day in two years.
Many Salvadorans live under the control of the local gangs, and territories on the outskirts of the city are ruthlessly run using unspoken codes dictated by gang leaders. In the busy city center, police armed with shotguns stand on most corners, guarding everything from convenience shops to bakeries.
In recent years, the LGBTI community has become particularly vulnerable to the gang violence. Trans people have been verbally abused and sexually harassed in the street, beaten and raped by gang members, and sometimes even attacked by the police. The life expectancy for a transgender woman in El Salvador is less than 35 years, according to the International Lesbian and Gay Association. And 16 trans people are reportedly killed every year in the country.
“We’re used to the violence,” Cerritos said. “We know it’s a risk every time we step outside.”
Cerritos and his colleagues were left reeling from the recent spate of murders in San Luis Talpa, 30 minutes outside the city. There, three transgender women were murdered within just 72 hours in February. The third victim, Elizabeth Castillo, was reportedly kidnapped, tortured, and killed after attending the funeral of the other two other victims.
The police were seemingly unsympathetic, describing the murdered women as “men who were wearing women’s clothes.”
Astrans LGBTI told VICE News that the spate of killings ignited fear in their community, and highlighted the impunity granted to perpetrators of anti-LGBTI crime. Though a law that recognized hate crimes motivated by gender or sexual orientation was introduced in 2015, campaigners say no one has ever been convicted of the murder of transgender people in the country.
“We still don’t know who killed those three women,” Cerritos added.
Astrans LGBTI, founded in 2007, say the demand for their work in the city and rural areas has increased in the last year. Their services, which include hormone treatment and sexual health advice, currently benefit 83 trans women and 26 trans men, but they can support up to 200 people at any given time.
The staff at the charity say people — often isolated by their community, ostracized by their family, or facing threats — come to them in a desperate state.
“People come to us crying, sometimes scared,” Cerritos said. “They place so much hope in us because there’s such little help out there.”
Cerritos was once in the same position. After he came out to his parents at 18, he fled home. Feeling alone and trapped, he travelled to the coast. There, he contemplated suicide. “I wanted to see the ocean. I wanted it to be the last thing I saw in my life,” he said.
Cerritos ultimately decided to return home, and started university in San Salvador in 2014. Today, he fights his own battles, as well as those of other transgender people. In El Salvador, transgender people are not legally allowed to change their name or gender on official documentation. This means that when Cerritos graduates later this year, they will not call out his real name at the ceremony.
“I’m fighting that,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Many in the LGBTI community in El Salvador, including Cerritos, once held out hope of being granted asylum in the U.S. In a country where Salvadorans are the fourth-largest population of Hispanic origin — they believed they could be safe from persecution. Two members of Astrans LGBTI — including the president of the charity — were forced to flee El Salvador in 2015 after death threats from gangs, and were later granted asylum in the U.S.
But some people in El Salvador’s LGBTI community now say the desire to flee to the U.S. has diminished since President Trump took office. Though Obama deported more people than any other president, Trump’s treatment of transgender people, as well as his rhetoric and policies regarding immigration, has fueled further concern — many now fear that any future asylum requests would be rejected.
“At the moment, people don’t see the magnitude of the problem,” Cerritos says, “but if it [Trump’s deportations] continues the way it is, it’s going to cause a lot of problems for us.”
Countries in Latin America pose the deadliest threat to LGBTI people, according to the research group “Transrespect versus transphobia worldwide.” Their study recorded a total of 2,115 reported murders of transgender people worldwide between January 2008 and April 2016, and 78 percent of them occurred in Central and South America.
As long as the killers of the transgender women in San Luis Talpa continue operate with impunity, Cerritos and his team say, there is little hope of safety for El Salvador’s transgender community.
“To us, those murders are just the start,” Cerritos said. “The killers believe what they’re doing is allowed.”
Rossalyn Warren is a freelance reporter. Reporting for this article was supported by The European Journalism Centre. Follow her on Twitter @RossalynWarren.