Gang members turned up at Karla Avelar's home in San Salvador and threatened to kill her if she didn't give them 50% of the reward money
A few weeks ago, gang members turned up at Karla Avelar's home in San Salvador. They thought she'd been awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and threatened to kill her if she didn't give them 50% of the reward money.
But they were mistaken, because although Karla Avelar has become the first transgender person to be nominated for the award, she has not yet won it. If the jury of prestigious NGOs choose to give her the prize, she will be invited to the reward ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland in October.
After the threats, Avelar requested police protection and an investigation into the incident. A response – as is frequently the case in El Salvador – was not forthcoming. 'It's a failed state,' says the trans activist in her interview for PlayGround.
'Even if they do send me a policeman, it's no guarantee. In fact, when I think about it, the police are often the main perpetrators of the violence,' says Karla, who is considering seeking political asylum abroad.
Avelar and the NGO that she cofounded, Comunicado y Capacitando a Mujeres Trans (COMCAVIS), have, along with the NGO ASPIDH Arcoíris Trans, denounced the Salvadoran state on three occasions to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and once to the UN, for not defending the life and human rights of transgender people.
They report that of the 700 murders committed between 1993 and 2017 'none have been investigated' and this is despite a legal reform that seeks to apply harsher penalties, such as up to 60 years in prison for perpetrators of hate crimes. 'What's the point of a reformed penal code if crimes go unpunished?' asks Karla.
Last February, three transexual women were murdered in San Salvador, according to Associated Press. So far this year, seven cases have been registered.
The NGO Transgender Europe registered 2343 murders of transgender people between 2008 and 2017.
Pursued by violence: 'I no longer sleep at night because of the gangs'
Avelar has come very close to being one of those victims herself. She is haunted by memories of incidents of sexual violence and transphobic aggression that have kept her awake at night for years. 'Now I've moved to a neighbourhood that's a little safer and I sleep a bit better. I used to get terrible insomnia. These days, how well I sleep depends on how frustrating the day has been,' she says.
When she was nine, growing up in a rural area of El Salvador, Avelar was raped by her cousin. She fled to the capital, San Salvador, and begged on the streets. When she was ten she began identifying, and dressing, as a woman.
Living on the streets it was inevitable that Avelar would come into contact with the maras: the street gangs, responsible for hundreds of homicides a year. When she was still a child, Avelar was raped by 15 gang members, leaving a mental scar that would sadly not be her last.
When she was 15, she was shot nine times at close range, as a result of which she spent several weeks in a coma.
Although at that stage she hadn't yet become involved in trans activism, Avelar says she became an activist the day she left her home: 'from the moment you part ways with your family and leave home you become a protagonist in the fight for human rights. You then extend this to other people. I wanted to be Karla, but my family couldn't accept me.'
But the worst was yet to come. In 1996, she became a victim of the transphobia of the justice system which prosecuted her for defending herself from an attack.
She then spent five years in prison – a period that still hurts her to remember. 'I was serving time with my executioner. The judge didn't care that they were going to kill me. They made my life a living hell for five years. I was raped every day! I no longer sleep safe at night because of the gangs. I'm marked for life. I've been a target for them ever since I reported them.'
'I went public about being given HIV after being raped every day for five years. That makes me even more of a target for them. A lot of them want to kill me. I responded by denouncing what they have done: the criminals and the state.'
Activism as therapy: 'Small victories in a never-ending struggle'
To overcome her traumas, or at least 'soothe the wounds', Karla has spent years getting help from psychologists, thanks in part to donations to her NGO. The government has not provided any assistance. 'Even today I sometimes wake up screaming,' she says. The support of her mother, with whom she has been reunited and reconciled after all these years, has been important too.
But her activism also serves as therapy for Karla, although she recognises that all she achieves are 'small victories in a constant struggle'. 'I realise that there are some political, social and cultural advances being made, but they are not enough. There's a deep-seated religious fundamentalism that holds us back,' she says.
One recent victory could be seen on the webpage elfaro.net, one of the main Salvadoran news sources. The headline read 'Supreme Court accepts that a man may have a woman's name' and opened with the line: '17 years ago, Lea decided to become a woman.'
Avelar spoke to El Faro to stress that all the Supreme Court had agreed to was that a trans woman could use her social name. And that Lea probably felt herself to be a woman long before she changed her body or name.
The progressive newspaper answered by saying that they had used that headline because it was the legal term. However, according to Karla 'their duty as communication media is to sensitivise the population' and such attitudes demonstrate that 'machismo and misogyny are predominant and institutionalised.'
Regardless, the change of name 'is an advance' says Karla. Above all, because in El Salvador, three legal actions lay the basis for creation of a law.
But it is not enough: 'The state should legislate to protect the trans minority and hate crime victims. And enforce the law. We ask that the nations of the Organisation of American States be obliged to do so. Society changes faster than politicians who are, currently, obstacles to our rights.'
Double standards: 'The one who feeds you at her breast later wants nothing to do with you'
The 'double standards' and 'religious, catholic and evangelical fundamentalism' are two of the factors that fuel hatred in El Salvador. 'The one who kisses you, who feeds you at her breast, then wants nothing to do with you outside that context,' says Karla.
The labour market is not open to them: some trans women even had to give up their jobs after public pressure on the Secretariat of Social Inclusion. 'There are some opportunities for homosexuals, but for trans people there is nothing in either the public or private spheres.' As a result, many feel forced into prostitution like Avelar.
The media doesn't help either, the activist believes: 'TV broadcasters should educate and raise awareness, but many subscribe to the idea that homosexuality and transsexuality are a risk. A journalist talks in a way that is openly discriminatory and nobody says a thing.'
The context of transphobia in El Salvador can not be dissociated from the culture of violence propagated by the street gangs. 'It's a failed state and the gang epidemic has gotten out of hand. Gang members are forcing civil society to exercise violence: they are a black stain on our society,' Karla states.
Thanks to Karla's drive and initiative, El Salvador's first transgender association was born. Five more have subsequently emerged. And now, thanks to her award nomination, she hopes to 'train the critical gaze on the Salvadoran state, a constructive gaze that motivates change.' And she hopes that she will be alive to see those changes come about.