The lack of safety of trans women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica is “worrying”, and the panorama shows no signs of improving given the impunity that persists around these crimes, marking clear disinterest from the state.  

These are some of the conclusions of the report “Transcending Hatred and the Syndemic “ about transfemicides against human rights defenders and the struggle for justice in Mesoamerica between 2020 and 2022. 11 transfemicides were registered in 2020, the most violent of the years included in the study.

The  Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras) authored the report, registering crimes occurring in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. It concludes that these crimes involved high levels of cruelty and viciousness. Force has frequently been used against them with the “pretext of dealing with” the COVID pandemic, which means that public authorities were among the main perpetrators of violence.

“The rise in transfemicides against human rights defenders coincides with the region’s sustained and accelerated rise of authoritarianism, the weakening of the institutions that should guarantee the rights of the population and the intensification of repressive and militarist policies”, the report states.

Moreover it warns that before being murdered, trans women activists faced “acts of systemic violence” and threats and in the aftermath the killers have not been punished.

Read here: Stacy, a trans woman who went out on the streets to defender human rights

Abundant proof

Ludwika Vega, is a Nicaraguan trans human rights defender. She survived an attempt at transfemicide. In 2019, she was stabbed, beaten and put into a plastic bag in the office where worked as an advisor for the trans community. She says that before this, she had received reiterated death threats that weren’t carried out, and they continue now.

“They still  send me messages on WhatsApp, on Facebook calling me a pig, that I’ve been talking against the government, and that I’m doing activities promoting homosexuality. Now what I do is to publish these on my posts to leave the evidence of the threats”, Vega says.

She avoids denouncing them to the police because of their lack of commitment to investigate. The fact that her case of attempted transfemicide has gone unpunished is proof of this. After a year of following up on the police investigation, she eventually gave up on trying to get justice.  According to the IM-Defensoras report, this type of impunity sends the message that “violence against trans human rights defenders is tolerated and accepted”.

Yasuri Potoy, trans activist and human rights defender says that hate crimes in Nicaragua are not “as latent” as they are in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but trans activists “experience a culture of fear. Everyone has adopted security measures in order not to become just one more number on the list of defenders who have been silenced for demanding our rights be upheld”.

Censorship is the main instrument of the violence. Persecution, the jailing of leaders and the constant harassment means that most of the defenders have gone into exile, and the few remaining in the country are working in precarious conditions. The cancelling of the legal status of hundreds of civil society organisations has had a negative influence on their advocacy work, which requires resources in order to be effective. 

Read more: Murder of Lala reveals vulnerability of trans women in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua we can’t talk about improvements in the defence of human rights of the LGBTQ+ population. There’s no institution or organization from home we can request support, protection or justice because we know that all the state institutions have been hijacked [by the regime]”, Potoy states.

The report includes the death of the woman political prisoner Carolina Gutierrez as evidence of the serious health risks for trans people created by the conditions of those held prisoner, and the death of Anahis Contreras, better known as “Lala”, as evidence of the cruelty to which trans women are exposed.

One of the patterns identified among the victims of transfemicides is that they had gained recognition and leadership which contributed to greater collective visibility. Potoy analyses that

the violence of society is not only focused on trans women, but on everything that represents the feminine. This is seen as a challenge to the system and even more so when it is a voice defending our rights, it is an uncomfortable voice. So, these uncomfortable voices are silenced, and because they are silenced through these hate crimes, they sow fear, as if to say: this is what can happen to you if you choose to be a trans woman”.

Daily life of trans women Nicaragua

Vega and Potoy agree that the lack of interest in genuine inclusion in the country begins with the fact there is no law on identity, and that these murders are not typified as transfemicides because they are not recognized as such in the Criminal code. The victims continue to be identified by their birth names and not by their chosen names. All of this has repercussions in their personal growth.

They have difficulty in gaining access to further and higher education and their probability of achieving salaried jobs is almost nil.

 “People don’t want to employ us and won’t rent to you because you’re trans. There are people who won’t even let you use the toilet -and this is true because it’s happened to me- because they says it disgusts them, they think you have some kind of disease and that you’re going to give it to them. These are all situations we’ve experienced”, Vega says.

While doing this interview, Vega attended to another trans woman who was homeless. Her landlord threw her out and she had nowhere to stay. These are frequent situations, she insists, and this is why she feels a trans women’s refuge is “very important” in order to shelter trans women who have no housing.

Read more: Health of Celia Cruz, trans woman currently held as a political prisoner by the regime, is deteriorating as she is on hunger strike.

Faced with this social and labour vulnerability, many trans women are forced to subsist by doing sex work. The report states that they are forced to “face the demands of organised crime”. Vega says this problem in Nicaragua isn’t as invasive as it is in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. At the same time, Potoy affirms, organised narcotics traffickers extort money from trans women sex workers and force them to “offer, distribute and even drug some of the clients using their sexual services”.

“Some of the trans women involved in these networks have had to leave the country for their own safety and that of their families” says Potoy.

All of these aspects of insecurity on the street and in high risk areas have pushed trans women sex workers into using social networks.

Vega refers to Covid and to the constant assaults trans women have been subjected to since common prisoners were released and pardoned, as something that has marked this tendency to shift to online connections with clients through apps. She admits that this isn’t 100% safe but it reduces the risks they were exposed to on the streets at night.  

Given this universe of challenges faced by trans women, the report underlines the fact that “beyond the shelter of their networks, collectives and organisations, the work and lives of trans defenders continue to be marked by high levels of vulnerability, and they are a long way from receiving their due protection by the state in the Mesoamerican countries and region”.

Despite this panorama, the activists emphasise their commitment is strong in continuing to make their demands visible.

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La Lupa es un medio con perspectiva de género y derechos humanos que surgió en mayo de 2019.