El Salvador / Impunity
Camila, the First Transgender Victim to Find Justice in 25 Years

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María Luz Nóchez

Edith Córdova, the mother of Camila Díaz, a trans woman who died after she was beaten by National Civil Police officers. Photo by El Faro: Víctor Peña.
Edith Córdova, the mother of Camila Díaz, a trans woman who died after she was beaten by National Civil Police officers. Photo by El Faro: Víctor Peña.

Before issuing his ruling, the first sentencing judge of San Salvador gives officers Carlos Valentín Rosales, Luis Alfredo Avelar, and Jaime Geovanny Mendoza one last opportunity to say something. Of the three, only Mendoza speaks. (Because of the pandemic, the trial is being conducted by videoconference.) From a room in the La Esperanza prison, Mendoza insists that he is innocent of the charges against him. They were the last people to interact with Camila on January 31, 2019, before she was found half dead by police officers.

The facemask obstructs any trace of emotion, but on the screen the defendants look anxious. More than one of them shakes his head “no” as they listen to the judge’s arguments. A year and seven months have passed since Camila’s mother and friends decided to seek justice for her death. It took the same amount of time for the prosecutor to build a case, which she classified as a hate crime in the initial indictment “[b]ecause of the brutality with which this act was committed.” A hate crime, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, is motivated by prejudices that “demonstrate an extreme and brutal violence that originates in the way that the perpetrators try to dehumanize the victims against whom they hold intolerant and prejudiced stances,” as the indictment states. Camila was a trans woman in a country where the LGBTI population is stigmatized, persecuted, and violated.

“Logic indicates that the defendants have participated in this act. The only ones who could have injured the victim at that moment are the officers. I do not have any evidence that indicates otherwise,” said judge Mauricio Marroquín, before sentencing the defendants to 20 years in prison. It is not the maximum penalty, but in a country where homicides like Camila’s have been invisible statistics for more than 25 years, the ruling represents a turning point.

July 28, 2020 is already an important date for El Salvador’s LGBTI population. After 600 murders without justice, a trans woman’s murder case has been resolved, has ended in justice. The case has drawn particular attention because the perpetrators are officers of the National Civil Police—an institution whose motto is “to serve and protect above all,” but is one of the LGBTI population’s most frequently denounced aggressors.   

Outside the courtroom, there are cameras and journalists reviewing notes to prepare their articles, but their presence actually corresponds to the coverage of the trial of General David Mungía Payés, identified as the father of the truce between gangs. We, the same four journalists who have followed the case since at least the pre-trial phase, remain inside. Because of quarantine restrictions, today there are no relatives, friends, or representatives of LGBTI organizations.

In the absence of activists and family members, the celebration of the guilty verdict is led by prosecutors Gisela Meléndez and Paola Echeverría, assigned to the Soyapango Prosecutor’s Office Unit for Crimes Related to Children, Adolescents and Women in their Family Relationships. Of all the complaints that she receives on a daily basis, Meléndez felt that this case was worth pursuing. Sixteen months ago, she issued the order to carry out the necessary investigations to gather evidence, and with them she charged the officers with abuse of authority, deprivation of liberty, and homicide with the aggravating factor of a hate crime. 

In El Salvador, the classification of hate crime has been recorded in the Penal Code since 2015. For the LGBTI organizations, the measure represented important progress in the fight against impunity. For more than a quarter century, investigations into the murders of the trans population have never reached the trial phase, much less resulted in a conviction. Although the Prosecutor’s Office did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that classification, the conviction of officers Avelar, Rosales, and Mendoza sets an important precedent in these cases since it breaks, for the first time, the pattern of impunity.

Three Calls for Help to Save Camila

Camila was conscious when a police officer approached to try to find out what had happened to her. Crying, she struggled to explain. Though she couldn’t speak, her body told her story: lying on the asphalt, she was bleeding from wounds spread across her legs, pelvis, abdomen, arms, and face. She was covered in bruises. The officers found her at kilometer 5 ½ of the extension of Constitución Boulevard, 50 meters from the Colonia El Coco. It was 3:52 in the early morning of January 31, 2019.

Despite the darkness, three people alerted the emergency system to her presence. One said that she was a man, a second call maintained that she was a woman, and the third defined her as a man dressed as a woman. The officers who helped her also failed to correctly identify her gender identity as specified in her records. Her long hair, red-painted nails, and clothes in which she was dressed were not sufficient to identify her as a woman. Faced with a form that only has space for a man and a woman, the paramedics checked the box that said man, a recurrent practice in a state that renders the gender identity of the LGBTI population invisible. 

Camila was admitted to the Rosales Hospital, where they performed numerous surgeries on her to treat the injuries and fractures. She remained in critical condition for three days; she never regained consciousness. She could not identify herself or explain what had happened to her. She couldn’t call anybody to tell them where she was. 

The last time anyone heard from Camila was the night of January 30 at around 9 p.m. In voice memos, she told Virginia, her friend and former housemate, that she was ready to leave the streets, that she no longer wanted to continue fighting with other trans women over the territory where she did sex work. Camila was living with one of Virginia’s cousins, who attempted to file a missing person report on February 3, but she was not allowed to do so because she was not a relative. That same day, Camila died alone in Rosales Hospital without being identified by her name or gender identity.

Virginia, who had taken refuge in the interior of the country to flee threats against her, traveled to San Salvador on February 7 to make the rounds at police stations, hospitals, and Forensic Medicine. At the hospital, someone told her that they had treated a person with the characteristics she described, but the body was no longer there. At Forensic Medicine, they showed her a photo album with which she could confirm the victim was her friend. Again, the lack of kinship prevented her from claiming the body. In addition, officials required she file a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office in order to release the body, since according to her medical file she [Camila] had been the victim of a hit-and-run. Edith Córdova, Camila’s mother, traveled from Mercedes La Ceiba that same day. They turned the body over to her the next day. “When I filed the complaint, I wasn’t thinking about them investigating anything. All I wanted was to recover my daughter’s body,” she remembers.

Virginia accompanied Edith to file the complaint, and she was the one who provided a detail that would later place the case under the spotlight. In the absence of witnesses, the trans population has devised mechanisms to gather information and search networks in the event of a disappearance or case of violence. “When ASPIDH (a trans organization) posted on Facebook that Camila had died, a woman who works there called to say that she had seen some police officers who had her lying face down and handcuffed on the street,” Virginia said. After a few days, an investigator from the National Civil Police contacted her to accompany them, at night, to speak with the women who said that they had seen Camila being subdued by police officers. She refused. “Given the situation, I can’t trust anybody, one gets that paranoia and psychosis,” she says. 

Officers Who Save, Officers Who Beat

The officers who found Camila motionless and crying in pain were not aware of it, but the person they were helping was the reason for another 911 call, made 40 minutes earlier, on the early morning of January 31, 2019. On the first phone call, an officer from the Police Medical Unit of the National Civil Police was reporting an incident on the outskirts of this institution, at 23 Norte Avenue in San Salvador. For Camila, as for many trans women, sex work was her source of income, and that was her zone. According to the toxicological analysis they performed on her, that night she had consumed cocaine, which led to a collision between her and some shrubs. A female officer approached her to ask if she was all right, but Camila insulted her and then there was a struggle between the two. She [the officer] neutralized her and handcuffed her. Alerted by the Police Medical Unit, Carlos Valentín Rosales, Luis Alfredo Avelar, and Jaime Geovanny Mendoza arrived on the scene. From that moment on, Camila remained in the custody of the State.

Despite the fact that the officer was explicit in saying that she did not feel offended by the tussle, Camila remained in the custody of the three police officers, who changed her handcuffs and put her on the bed of the patrol car, lying down on her side with her hands cuffed behind her the whole time. Before she left, the female officer asked where they would take her [Camila]; they answered that Camila had asked to be taken home, on Motocross Street. Rosales and Avelar got in, one on each side of Camila, while Mendoza drove. 

The patrol truck left at 3:19 a.m., but the route they took was not as advertised. Instead of heading toward Motocross Street, they went toward the extension of Constitución Boulevard, as recorded by the video-surveillance cameras located between the starting point and the place where Camila appeared later.

While Mendoza drove, Camila was handcuffed for 33 minutes and at the mercy of officers Rosales and Avelar. The same officers who said that they were going to take her to a safe place beat her on the bed of that patrol truck, according to the Prosecutor’s Office. The autopsy concluded that she received repeated blows to her legs, pelvis, hip, abdomen, arms, and face, which caused “severe traumatic injuries, contusions to vital organs as well as extensive bleeding.” In addition, according to the prosecution, some of the injuries on Camila’s body suggested a fall from a moving vehicle. Camila was found with her right buttock broken open, from which traces of flesh and blood were observed on the highway two meters before the place where her body was found. The “clean cut” with which they identified this wound led the coroners to conclude that there was no way that this injury had been caused by a hit-and-run, as the defense wanted to claim. 

At the trial, the judge speaks, and the defendants listen to him via videoconference. “The only ones who could have injured the victim at that time were the officers, I do not have any evidence to indicate otherwise,” he says.

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, after leaving Camila half dead, officers Avelar, Rosales, and Mendoza returned to their base through an illogical route: they drove 20.5 kilometers when, if returning by the same route that they had taken to get there, the Flor Blanca police base was half the trip, 10.7 kilometers. When they returned to their post, at 4:02 in the morning, they did not record an update in their log, and they considered the case closed. At the trial, the defendants claimed that they never left a written record of picking Camila up that early morning because nobody had filed a criminal complaint against her, and they simply offered to help her for her own safety.

During the trial, the officers and their defense attorneys argue that they took Camila to the place where she was found half dead because she had asked them to do so, because she did not want to have problems with gang members in the area. “According to protocol, one has to respect his [editor’s note: the officer uses male pronouns to refer to Camila] physical safety, we could not expose him if he had already told us that he did not want ‘the muchachos [gang members]’ to see him with us,” Mendoza says.

The defense insists that someone else ran her over, but the autopsy was clear in establishing that the injuries do not correspond to a person who was hit by a car, but rather to someone who was beaten and thrown from a moving vehicle. The lawyers also allege that the patrol car’s trajectory was not enough evidence to incriminate the police officers in the beating because they are shown in an upright position at all times. In addition, they say that they found her and left her without bruises, and that the origin of the contusions could also be the result of the “fight” Camila had with the shrubs, or even that the officers at the Polyclinic caused them when they subdued her: “Since she was trans, I don’t believe that they used cotton balls or teddy bears to neutralize her,” says José Cabezas, the defense attorney for Avelar and Rosales.

After listening to the last prosecution witnesses, two of the defendants decide to tell their version of events. Before the session begins, they review their statements with the defense attorneys, like someone memorizing a speech. Contrary to what the expert reports show, in his final words, Avelar says that the patrol car stopped not once, but three times. He insists that they did so with the sole purpose of getting her closer to her house. “He asked us to leave him by the Schafick Handal traffic circle and when we got there, he asked us to drop him off at the curb by the Alba gas station.” Mendoza, the driver of the patrol car, reaffirms this version and expands on it. He asserts that he stopped and turned off the patrol car, that he was the one who took the handcuffs off Camila, and that the three of them saw her go in the direction of the Alba Constitución gas station, alive.

Transphobic Police

Luis Alfredo Avelar is 35 years old and has worked as a police officer since 2005. His file does not show any disciplinary sanctions. His immigration record shows that he was deported from the United States on April 26, 2019. He was the first of the defendants to state: “We do not have anything against the trans, the transvestites. We comply with taking them where they ask us to go.” According to his version of events, Camila changed where she wanted to be taken twice, and, in the line of duty, they changed routes to satisfy her.

Officer Jaime Geovanny Mendoza drove the patrol car that night. He is 28 years old and only joined the National Civil Police five years ago. By 2018, he had already earned recognition for police excellence. When the time came to testify, he attempted to make that recognition his letter of defense. “I have never been involved in an altercation that violates anyone’s human rights. So much so that in 2018 I was honored by the police for my excellent performance.” 

Officer Carlos Valentín Rosales is 37 years old, and he is the oldest of the three defendants. He has worked for the National Civil Police since December 2005, and he was the only one who decided not to testify, not even to say that he was innocent. His file does not have any sort of sanction either. 

A clean disciplinary record, however, is not a guarantee within an institution that has been identified by LGBTI organizations for years—and by the Attorney General’s Office for the Defense of Human Rights in 2017—as the one that engages in the most violence against trans women. The National Civil Police itself has recognized its problems with transphobia in its recent history. If there is a symbol to describe how cruel Salvadoran society is to the LGBTI community and the trans population, one need only look at its record with the members of these groups.  

In June 2015, the problem blew up in the faces of the top police authorities. On the day of the Pride March, a group of Ciudad Delgado police officers beat CAM [Metropolitan Police Corps] officer and trans activist Aldo Alexander Peña. The President’s Office condemned the act through the Secretary for Social Inclusion, which forced the police to examine itself.

According to a report on the human rights of trans women in El Salvador, presented by the Attorney General’s Office for Human Rights that same year, 70 out of every 100 trans women denounce the National Civil Police as the institution that most discriminates against them. “Historically, uniformed bodies have been the institutions that violated, persecuted, and even murdered us,” explains Ámbar Alfaro of the Feminist Association of Trans Women of El Salvador. The activist adds that impunity bolsters the culture of victim blaming, which minimizes the seriousness of the acts and the responsibility of the perpetrators. 

From this examination, police authorities acknowledged to El Faro that they had a problem among their members, but not an institutional one. For the police as a corporation, beyond training on the topic, this examination involved establishing the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s Policy on dealing with the LGBTI population, which was presented in 2017. That is to say, in theory, officers like Avelar, Rosales, and Mendoza should have been trained in matters related to serving this population.

An Aggravating Factor “Without Proof”

Camila Díaz’s murder was the first homicide of a trans woman that LGBTI organizations recorded in 2019. The characteristics of the beating that caused her death were immediately considered an act of barbarity. The classification is not arbitrary. Unlike a typical homicide, the wounds on the body denote cruelty on the part of the perpetrators. Activists and organizations have fought for years for it to be recognized that, as with femicides, there are details at crime scenes that show that the act was motivated by hatred. In 2015, the Legislative Assembly included this classification in the reforms to articles 129 and 155 of the Penal Code, in which those crimes that are based on sexual orientation, identity, and gender expression are established as hate crimes. Despite the reforms, however, the classification is not always applied and to date there haven’t been any convictions for this crime.

For the Prosecutor’s Office, Camila’s case met the characteristics, and from the start the charge was categorized as a hate crime. When the case went to the 5th magistrate court, Judge Salomón Landaverde gave the green light to this theory to advance the investigation, since in his view “it is inferred that a man dressed as trans with painted nails could possibly have been the motive for committing a hate crime.”

To anchor this assumption, the Prosecutor’s Office ordered a psychiatric assessment of the defendants to show the prejudices that they might have in regard to the LGBTI community,  specifically toward trans women. The result was not positive: “The existence of behaviors or prejudices based on sexual orientation or gender identity cannot be proven,” the expert reports concluded.

For Sidney Blanco, the examining judge who issued the act to open the trial, the hypothesis that officers Rosales, Avelar, and Mendoza are likely responsible for beating and throwing Camila from a moving vehicle was “logical, precise, and conclusive.” The evidence presented in court, however, was not sufficient to keep the homicide’s aggravating factor of a hate crime in place. The lack of antecedents, attitudes, manifestations, and behaviors to show that the officers have, or had in the past, “behaviors of prejudice, intolerance, or hatred toward persons of a certain sexual orientation” prevented him from considering it.

At the public hearing, it was the same psychiatrist who testified that the completed expert examination was insufficient to determine prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and it could not rule out their existence. Psychologist Ligia Orellana, a social investigator in the areas of prejudice, violence, subjective wellbeing and LGBTI issues, explains that there are two types of hate crimes: instrumental and reactive. “The instrumental ones serve to send a message, which is often accomplished by brutalizing the victim’s body.” The reactive ones are spontaneous; they occur “in the heat” of a situation. In these, she clarifies, there can also be cruelty when more than one perpetrator is involved.

At the trial, and knowing that it did not have the necessary evidence, the Prosecution asks in its closing arguments that the judge consider the motivation of a hate crime when he issues his ruling. “It is to see how this act was committed: in a dark place, three police officers, a machista society that repudiates a person with a different sexual orientation. The reason why the defendants killed Camila was because of what she represented, because of her appearance, and because of what she generates in this society,” Paola Echeverría, the case’s second prosecutor, pleads.

Although the judge did not have any doubt about the police officers’ participation in the crime, he says that he cannot issue a decision on the aggravating factor, since the prosecutors did not propose it from the beginning of the trial.

Camila’s case is the third homicide of a trans woman to be prosecuted since the 2015 reform of the penal code went into effect. This is the first case to achieve a conviction, but the organizations lament that the investigations continue without going deeper into the patterns and root causes that allow such crimes to keep occurring.

Camila Wanted to Flee El Salvador

Eight months before the conviction, on November 9, 2019, Edith and Virginia met again at Camila’s grave to honor her. They had not seen each other since February 8, when the body was turned over to them, but they spoke with the familiarity of those who have known each other for many years.

Camila’s grave was covered with peach-colored tiles, but it did not have an inscription. Virginia laid a wreath that matched the decoration that Edith and Camila’s sister had placed just a week before for the Day of the Dead. Edith was proud of the place where her daughter now rests, and although the situation is not ideal, she consoled herself with having a place to go to leave her flowers. “I have the peace of mind that I gave her land [note: had a place to bury her],” she said, aware that in this country the whereabouts of the disappeared are not always found.

At her grave, Virginia remembered an unfulfilled dream of Camila’s.  She wanted to flee, start a business in Tapachula, Mexico. “She had even been thinking about the possibility of getting seed capital to open a store or something.” Tapachula was a memory from 2016: that year, both had taken refuge there, fleeing the violence, the violence that they had known since 2007, when they started working together on the streets.  

They met in front of the Roque Dalton Chamber Theater. “She was working with a cousin of hers on that street, where I was also working with Mónica.” After a month, seeing that she was not meeting the goal that he had set, Camila’s cousin decided to hit her in the middle of the street. Virginia and Mónica convinced her to leave him: “He is abusing you and he is marginalizing you,” they told her. And that was how they received her in their home, and they helped her get dressed and get ready. They were the ones who christened her Camila. 

Initially, the three friends lived in a small apartment in the multifamily homes of the Zacamil neighborhood, and then they moved with one of Virginia’s cousins to Mejicanos. They had to move from one place to another with their relatives to escape threats from the gang members. The threats caught up with Mónica in May 2011, when a group of gang members shot her inside a route 47 bus. Their crime remains unpunished.

Camila did not feel safe in El Salvador, which is why she tried to migrate more than once. After a few months, however, she would decide to return because she felt lonely and wanted to see her mother. The relationship with Edith was never excellent, but it had improved since she went to live in San Salvador. In front of her daughter’s grave, Edith tripped over masculine pronouns when referring to her daughter, and she admitted that she was surprised to see her changed each time she arrived to visit her. Her assimilation of Camila’s gender identity was not easy. She [Edith] even took her [Camila] for psychological treatment as a child to “try to change her.”   

Camila was the only one of the group of three friends who was still living with Virginia’s cousin when she disappeared on January 31. “The first thing that occurred to me is that perhaps she had been arrested for fighting with someone,” Virginia remembers. This possibility was not entirely strange, since in 2015, before her first departure to Mexico, Camila was attacked by other trans women who were working in the Parque Infantil neighborhood, in the center of San Salvador. Camila had gotten a job in a salon on Independencia Avenue. One day she was running late, and they thought she wanted to invade their territory. “Even the same crazy women discriminate against you,” Virginia said.

After Camila’s death, out of fear, Virginia decided to leave San Salvador and hide in the interior of the country. Nine trans women were murdered in 2019, according to data from the Center for Documentation and the Trans Situation in Latin America and the Caribbean. All of the bodies were found with signs of torture. 

Even though she was protected and not a witness for the prosecution, the case followed Virginia.  At the end of September 2019, she received a phone call from an unidentified person to discuss Camila’s case, and they called her by her birth name to identify her. Days later, Edith got a similar call from someone who said they were a relative of one of the accused police officers. They offered her a deal.

A month later, in October, some police officers who were patrolling Virginia’s current neighborhood stopped her and asked her if she knew a trans woman named Virginia. She played dumb and told them that she didn’t know anybody by that name. The officers then began to ask her if she knew about Camila’s case, and again she said she didn’t.

Since March 2019, Virginia, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has been trying to win an asylum application. Otherwise, she fears she will become another statistic and that her name will join those of her murdered friends. The conviction of Camila’s killers makes her happy because justice was done for her friend and because, in reality, when she found out that the defendants were National Civil Police officers, she thought it was most likely that the crime would go unpunished. “When I learned that they were police officers, I lost hope, because, ay…If I were to tell you how many times they abused us when we were on the streets.” She regrets that they were not convicted of a hate crime and says she is not satisfied. 

Although the ruling consoles Edith as an act of justice, it also leaves her feeling dissatisfied: “These men are going to pay for what they did, but that doesn’t bring my daughter back to life, back to me. I won’t tell you [that I feel satisfied], because I can’t take joy in the misfortune of others.”

*Translated by Jessica Kirstein

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