Camila Díaz Córdova, a transgender woman, suffered violence and discrimination her entire life. She even fled El Salvador multiple times to seek refuge abroad. After being deported from the United States in late 2017, her fate was sealed. Prosecutors allege that in January 2019 police officers detained Camila and assaulted her in a pickup truck before throwing her out of the moving vehicle. She died from her injuries. Earlier this month, an investigating judge ruled that a homicide case against the officers can proceed to trial. Yet, he dismissed the classification of the murder as a hate crime based on gender identity.
A hate crime occurs is when a perpetrator targets a victim on the basis of their identity. Though any violent crime is objectionable, hate crimes are particularly reprehensible as they aim to terrorize a group. In 2015, the Legislative Assembly recognized the gravity of these crimes and modified the Penal Code to include killings motivated by hate, including on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, as aggravated homicides. As of today, however, prosecutors have tried to classify just three murders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, including the murder of Camila, as hate crimes. In all three cases, judges dismissed the hate crimes charges, and none have resulted in a conviction.
Seven trans women and two gay men have been murdered in the past five months in El Salvador. Details of the cases show the perpetrators’ apparent hatred for people with diverse gender expressions or sexuality. Victoria Pineda, for example, was found naked in Ahuachapán with her face disfigured and covered in logs and a car tire. Bianka Rodríguez of COMCAVIS said she believed Victoria was “crucified,” with the tire symbolizing a crown of thorns and the logs the wooden crossbar. Tita Andrade, another transgender woman, was found 90% burned in La Unión. Such symbolic and brutal murders are often committed against groups like the LGBT community accused of “moral crimes.”
Hate crime prosecutions carry higher sentences and demonstrate a commitment by the public authorities to confront criminal activity motivated by hatred. When targeted assaults and killings of LGBT people are classified as hate crimes, this sends an important signal to the broader public that the authorities value LGBT lives. It also allows the authorities to track patterns and root causes of violence, which will help build strategies to deter anti-LGBT violence.
President Bukele has made fighting crime a cornerstone of his presidency and touts the declining numbers of homicides. Yet, his lack of strategy when it comes to LGBT hate crimes is disquieting. In 2020 there have already been three reported murders of gay and transgender people in El Salvador. Bukele should publicly and unequivocally condemn this violence, encourage prosecutors to pursue hate crimes charges, and ensure that judges receive adequate training on hate crimes.
As it stands, the trial of those accused of killing Camila will not examine whether they targeted Camila for her gender identity. Even so, LGBT Salvadorans are closely watching whether justice will be delivered for the recent spate of murders. If prosecutors succeed in securing a hate crime conviction, it may partially lift the insecurity under which the embattled community lives. It may even reassure them that they live in a country that values their existence, where there may be hope beyond the dream of fleeing north that Camila shared with too many other LGBT people in El Salvador.