El Salvador’s Justice System Takes on a Historic Case
Transgender rights activists say the prosecution of Camila Díaz Córdova’s death as a hate crime is an advance, although LGBTQ citizens continue to face discrimination and abuse.
Virginia Flores has been on edge since February 2019, when she learned her best friend, Camila Díaz Córdova, a transgender woman, was dead in an apparent homicide. She has reason to be worried. Flores, a 37-year-old trans woman from El Salvador, knows she has beaten the odds just by being alive today. In El Salvador, trans women have a life expectancy of only 35 years due to extreme violence. Across the entire Latin America and Caribbean region, the figure ranges from 30 to 35 years, compared to average life expectancies ranging from 65 to 81.
The killing was a turning point for Flores: She said she realized she would never live in peace in her home country. In the week Díaz Córdova died, another trans woman was killed in El Salvador, and at least five more have been killed since then. In 2011, one of Flores and Díaz Córdova’s best friends, a trans woman named Monica, was killed. There was no arrest or conviction. “It’s alarming,” Flores said. “That’s why so many people say, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ Because I could be next.”
(Update, March 12, 2020: This piece has been slightly updated to reflect that on March 11, a judge ruled that the homicide case will continue to the third phase of El Salvador’s justice process, but the charges of unlawful deprivation of liberty and the classification of the homicide as a hate crime will not proceed.) Prosecutors had classified the homicide as a hate crime in a historic case for the country. It wasn’t until the country modified its penal code in 2015 that prosecutors could even categorize a homicide as a hate crime and seek a harsher penalty. Of 27 killings that El Salvador’s ombudsman has identified as LGBTQ hate crimes since then, prosecutors have tried to classify just two as hate crimes, not including the case of Díaz Córdova. In both cases, judges decided not to accept the charges, which would carry a higher sentence.
Trans rights organizations hope that the case will send a signal to Salvadoran society that hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer citizens are unacceptable and will be punished accordingly. But they say this would mark only a small step forward for trans rights in a country where LGBTQ citizens face systematic abuse and discrimination in nearly every aspect of life.
El Salvador has one of the highest rates of trans women who are killed relative to its small population, with 19 homicides reported in 2018. The exact number of trans women who have fled in recent years is difficult to track, because they often don’t tell anyone they are leaving and why, said Mónica Linares, the director of the trans rights organization Aspidh Arcoiris Trans. Another trans rights organization, Comcavis Trans, has documented 116 cases of trans women leaving the country since 2014, but the real number could be even higher. “The belief of the LGBT population has always been that the only way to ensure their rights is to leave the country,” said Johanna Ramírez, who provides legal aid through the San Salvador-based organization Passionist Social Service, in 2018.
Trans women report constant harassment from employers, law enforcement, and other government institutions. In a 2019 study, trans women in El Salvador reported experiencing systemic intimidation, robbery, sexual assault, and harassment from police. Many employers refuse to hire them, so sex work is often their only option. A 2014 report from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS found that nearly 50 percent of trans women in El Salvador made a living through sex work. This work exposes them to even more violence and discrimination, from their clients, gangs, and authorities. Díaz Córdova and Flores both had been sex workers in the past.
Flores is now considering seeking asylum in the United States. But she has heard horror stories about the journey and potential detention in the United States—some from Díaz Córdova herself when she was alive—that are making her think twice. Díaz Córdova attempted to seek asylum in late 2017 before being deported. Flores also knows that seeking asylum in the United States is now becoming harder than ever.
In fiscal year 2019, a record 69 percent of asylum cases were rejected, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonprofit data research center at Syracuse University. Díaz Córdova was one of the tens of thousands of people who pursued asylum in the United States in 2017, but she abandoned the attempt later that year, citing horrible detention center conditions to her friends, and returned to El Salvador. Opting to return home instead of waiting years for cases to be resolved has become more common under President Donald Trump’s administration. “She came back disillusioned,” Flores said.
Now, Flores is one of many Central Americans weighing whether it still makes sense to pursue an asylum claim. In July 2019, the United States entered into a controversial safe third country agreement with Guatemala that requires migrants to seek asylum there if they enter the country en route to the United States, as most Salvadorans and Hondurans do. But civil society groups question how the country will care for the migrants when hundreds of thousands of its own citizens are leaving.
In September 2019, the governments of El Salvador and Honduras entered into similar agreements with the United States that have been met with equal criticism. Last July, the Trump administration announced a new rule that disqualifies any migrant from receiving asylum in the United States if they have not been denied asylum in another country they had passed through. This makes many Central Americans ineligible, because most travel through Mexico before reaching the U.S. border. Lawyers are still waiting to see exactly how these new restrictions will play out, given ongoing legal challenges.
Flores has heard about policy changes to restrict asylum for people from her country but said it doesn’t change the reality of her situation. She doubts that her country has gotten any safer for trans women like her and is scared the people responsible for Díaz Córdova’s death will harm her for speaking out. “With the way things are in my country, I would say that any attempt to leave is worth it,” she said in September 2019. Despite her fear, she has decided that speaking out is worth the risk.
Díaz Córdova’s attempts to seek a safe haven spanned several years. On Aug. 3, 2015, three Barrio 18 gang members approached Díaz Córdova while she was working at a bar in downtown San Salvador. She told Flores she suspected they had been sent by a group of trans women who worked at a nearby bar who had a personal problem with her and had previously threatened her. The gang members told her that she had 15 days to leave. If she refused, they threatened to kill her. Díaz Córdova reported the threats to police, but no one was ever arrested in relation to her case, according to Carlos Rodríguez, deputy attorney for civil rights for El Salvador’s ombudsman, who has been following the case.
Living in El Salvador seemed like certain death for Díaz Córdova, so that month she left for Mexico, where she gained legal residence. She then returned to El Salvador and convinced Flores to come to Mexico with her in March 2016, but there, they found life nearly as difficult as at home. Flores was violently robbed while with another friend, so she returned to El Salvador after two months. Díaz Córdova returned to El Salvador at the end of 2016 before leaving her home country in February 2017 for the last time. Back in Mexico, she met and formed a strong friendship with Julia, another trans woman from El Salvador whose name has been changed for her safety. As legal residents, they tried to establish new lives in various parts of Mexico. But they were unexpectedly fired from a clothing factory in what Julia believes was a case of workplace discrimination, leading Díaz Córdova to urge Julia to come with her to seek asylum in the United States in August 2017.
Julia said that U.S. officials at the port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, tried to turn them away, but Díaz Córdova remained adamant that they needed to enter the United States because they feared for their lives. A Spanish-speaking immigration official later came to process their cases. They had passed a major hurdle, but more were yet to come.
Díaz Córdova and Julia were then transferred to a detention facility in San Diego. Trans women are particularly vulnerable in immigrant detention. “Conditions are so bad in detention that our main goal is to get women out as soon as possible,” said Allegra Love, director and lawyer for Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a New-Mexico based immigrant legal aid organization. An average client spends four months in detention, Love said, but she has worked with at least one woman who was detained for two years. In recent years, parole has become less common for all asylum-seekers, including trans women. “They feel alone and like they are never going to win, and they roll the dice and they say, ‘I can’t take this. I’m going home.’ That’s how horrific detention is,” Love said.
Díaz Córdova applied for parole in early November 2017, which would have granted her release while her asylum case worked its way through an immigration court backlog. The request was denied—on the grounds that she had failed to prove she was not a flight risk—like many parole requests in recent years. From February to September 2017, only 4 percent of those who applied received parole from immigration detention, according to information presented in a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
With documentation of the threats and violence she fled, Díaz Córdova would have likely had a strong chance for protection back in 2017. New asylum rules would make her case harder to argue today.
After months of detention, Díaz Córdova waived her right to seek asylum and was deported in November 2017. Julia said that Díaz Córdova had lost hope and willingly waived her right to formally file for asylum, but Flores said Díaz Córdova told her that she was unaware of what she was signing.
Eventually, Julia and Díaz Córdova reconnected in El Salvador, but leaving still remained on their minds. Julia suggested to Díaz Córdova that they return to Mexico, and Díaz Córdova said she would think about it, but she never had the chance to give Julia her answer. Díaz Córdova went missing on Jan. 30, 2019. Earlier in the evening, she had told Flores she was having problems with a group of trans women who worked as sex workers whom she believed were receiving protection from a gang or police. “What I do is just listen and stay quiet,” said Díaz Córdova in her last message to Flores.
When Flores awoke the next day, Díaz Córdova had not responded to her last text. Once she realized something was wrong, Flores and friends began searching various police stations, hospitals, and the morgue. But they couldn’t find Díaz Córdova. Days later, a hospital confirmed that she had been treated there for serious injuries. She did not survive.
In July 2019, three police officers were arrested on suspicion of Díaz Córdova’s death. During a hearing that month, the judge accepted the charges, including a charge of aggravated homicide motivated by hate. As per Rodríguez, this was the first time a judge accepted this classification of a homicide as a hate crime, which carries a maximum sentence of 50 years compared to 30. The judge ordered that the police officers be held in prison while awaiting the rest of the trial. Lawyers for the accused said their clients are not guilty and repeatedly referred to Díaz Córdova using the pronoun “he” when addressing reporters outside the courtroom.
According to documents filed by the prosecutors, a witness said that he saw three police officers put Díaz Córdova in the back of their truck on the morning of Jan. 31. About an hour later, first responders reported finding Díaz Córdova seriously bruised and bleeding, in their assessment as a result of being thrown out of a moving vehicle. Prosecutors allege that Díaz Córdova was critically wounded by the officers. When asked for comment, the police officer handling the case said he would not confirm these details on the grounds that police cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.
A hearing in March was postponed, and the judge asked for more evidence from the prosecutors. The judge decided on March 11 that the case could continue to the third phase of El Salvador’s justice process, but the charges of unlawful deprivation of liberty and the classification of the homicide as a hate crime would not proceed, dashing the hopes of Flores and other activists.
Advocates say bias across the justice system continues: Trans women are stigmatized by judges and lawyers for engaging in sex work and blamed for the violence they experience. But the investigation of the case still represents a step forward in a country where just a few years ago the framework to prosecute as a hate crime did not even exist in its criminal code. Whatever the outcome, the case has made it further in the judicial process than any other homicide classified as a hate crime to date, according to Rodríguez.
“When the news broke, I felt a little bit of happiness and satisfaction, but I know that it’s a long process and that I have to wait until it reaches the end,” Flores said. “I’ve seen so much injustice in this country, so believing in the justice system is nearly impossible for me.”
Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America. Twitter: @AnnaCat_Brigida