Freelance Journalist and Editor
The Unsolved Murder of Tania Vasquez. Mashable, Feb 15, 2016.
PANCHIMALCO, El Salvador — When I saw Tania Vasquez in April 2013, she sat beside me at a conference in an upscale hotel in San Salvador.
When I saw her in May, she lay in a flimsy wooden casket.
The top half of the lid was open, so her face was visible through a sheet of glass. She had smooth olive skin, dark mascara, and a small hole where her right eyebrow met the bridge of her nose, where the bullet entered.
About 25 mourners sat in the cinder block community center in the Salvadoran village where Tania, then named Edwin, was born 24 years ago.
Tania’s uncle stood to give a speech. He thanked the audience for coming to the funeral of his nephew, Edwin. He said that when Edwin was a boy, he helped his uncle lay the bricks of this casa comunal. He exhorted the audience to repent for their sins. About half of the audience, evangelical Christian women with their hair covered in white veils, nodded and cried. The other half — a dozen transgender women — grew tense.
A half-hour earlier, they had filed through the community center’s sheet metal door, picking their way over roosters and bony dogs in high heels, their perfume wafting behind them. They wore blue T-shirts that said “COMCAVIS” (Communication and Training for Trans Women with HIV in El Salvador), the transgender activist organization that Tania helped found. They were all motion: setting up the casket and the candles, arranging sweet bread and coffee, dividing the duties for tomorrow’s press conference about this latest murder.
While the uncle spoke, the activists in the audience traded glances. They looked at Karla.
Karla Avelar is the director of COMCAVIS. When the uncle sat, she stood and spoke.
“For me, the person who lies in this casket was a woman, even if the church doesn’t recognize it and even if society doesn’t respect it,” she said. “For me, it’s tough to accept that because our society doesn’t educate itself, and because our families don’t learn to respect our identity, we have to go out to the streets to die.”
Minutes later, Tania’s aunt Celia, who raised Tania since she was a teen, approached the casket for the first time. She nearly couldn’t make it. White-veiled women held her up as she moaned, “Mihijo, despertáte mihijo! My son, wake up! I know you’re sleeping. Just get up!”
As the tension grew at the casket, one 10-year-old boy lay in a fetal position across the seats of two plastic chairs. He sobbed so hard that he choked and struggled for air. Adults circled, telling him to drink water, to calm down. His name is Carlos Noe, they said, and Tania was one of his stand-in parents ever since his mom, Tania’s sister, emigrated to Houston some years ago.
When Carlos was calm enough to talk, I asked him what they used to do on Tania’s weekend visits. In Spanish, it is possible to ask that question without using a gender pronoun: Qué hacían cuando le venía a visitar?
“We played soccer,” he said with his eyes to the floor.
I was hoping he would use a gender pronoun to describe the person we were both talking about without naming. He didn’t.
TANIA VASQUEZ was born in Panchimalco, El Salvador, on Nov. 12, 1987, to Isabel and Filonia Vasquez, young farmers. When Tania was 11 and still known as Edwin, her parents and 5-year-old sister were killed in a landslide during Hurricane Mitch. Her uncle, who lived nearby, took her in.
When she hit puberty, her uncle started to accuse her of being too feminine. He forbade her from eating with the family or using their latrine, calling her “swine.” At 14, she left.
Her aunt, 47-year-old Celia Santos Vasquez, remembered Tania as a sweet, sensitive child who loved to ride bikes and play soccer.
Tania “looked so young to me,” Celia said. “So I took him in and raised him as my son.”
Tania grew close to the family and was particularly tender with Celia and her cousin, Carlos Noe, whom Celia adopted when his mother emigrated to Texas.
Celia’s house is a potholed 20-minute drive from Panchimalco’s colonial town center into steep green hills. A dirt courtyard surrounds the three-room, cinder block home that someone painted white long ago. There’s a tank of water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Next to it, sparse tortillas crackle on a clay platter warmed by open flames.
Celia scatters sorghum kernels for the dozen eager chickens squawking up at her. For 27 years, she has lived here with her husband, who farms corn, beans and yucca. Their brood includes their two children; a baby grandchild; and Celia’s nephew, Carlos.
For the family, there is an inseparable link between when Tania started wearing women’s clothes and when she took to the dangerous streets. They call that moment “taking the path.” At 18-years-old, the boy they knew as Edwin became Tania.
“Edwin Omar Vasquez Santos”. Tania Vasquez’s identification card, issued in June 2011, still listed her birth name: “Edwin Omar Vasquez Santos.”COMCAVIS
“At first it was hard for me. I’d ask God why this was happening,” Celia said. “I’d say, ‘Son, pass me X thing’ and [she] would say, ‘Mom, call me daughter.’”
“Using the word ‘daughter’ was hard and never got easier,” Celia said.
Nonetheless, they stayed close. When neighbors harassed Tania on the street, Celia started meeting her at the bus stop, holding her hand on the walk home. Celia’s stare quieted the jeering and catcalls.
“I took care of him — her, I mean,” she said.
“Everyone knew Tania was a trans girl,” said her childhood friend Diana, a 28-year-old trans activist and Panchimalco native. She was beloved for her quick wit, Diana said, but she still had to “look male” at the local pupusa restaurant where she worked as a teenager.
Diana had been through the same thing working at a local medical clinic. She quit after a year and started doing sex work, which Tania had also recently done.
In a country where most doors are closed to transgender women, sex work is a way to stay afloat. Diana summed it up in one word: “Necessity.”
Tania, who was particularly close to the family that adopted her, felt additional pressure.
“We do prostitution because we want our families to make it by,” Diana said. “You saw how her family lives.”
Eventually, Tania left Panchimalco and moved to an apartment near downtown San Salvador. She met Karla and, with several other trans women, founded COMCAVIS.
Tania and Tatiana. Tania Vasquez, right, and Tatiana, another transgender activist, in El Salvador. COMCAVIS
Tania was a transgender activist in a country where it’s dangerous to be openly not heterosexual and especially to be transgender.
One February afternoon in 2013, she stood with a megaphone at a busy street corner outside the National University of El Salvador, where someone had written, in soot-black, 2-foot tall letters: “Defend your homeland, Kill a lesbian or a gay.”
Tania and 20-odd others gathered, denouncing the daily discrimination they face: denied jobs, ostracized from families and schools, targeted for violent attacks by cops, gangs and civilians. They painted over the graffiti. When the sun set, they lit candles and observed a minute of silence in honor of their murdered peers. Nearly 500 LGBT people — including many transgender women — have been killed in El Salvador since 1995, El Faro reported last month, and activists say that none of the murders has been solved.
Three months later, on May 4, 2013, Tania became the next victim. Her roommates said she went out that afternoon to meet up with friends. Her body, with its single gunshot wound, surfaced two days later, wrapped in black plastic near downtown San Salvador, Diana said.
Tania would have been buried in an unmarked grave, becoming yet another of El Salvador’s countless “disappeared” if it weren’t for the local activists’ intuition.
Activists in San Salvador. Tania Vasquez, holding a megaphone, with LGBT activists during a rally outside the University of El Salvador in San Salvador in Feb. 2013. D.M. MACKEY
Paty Hernandez, then-director of a Salvadoran trans organization called ASPIDH, scanned the newspaper as she did every morning, looking for reports of new transvestis (“transvestites”) found dead.
On May 6, she said, she saw one: Unidentified. Gunshot wound. Found downtown.
Paty knew that this latest victim probably had no biological family willing to claim her body. That meant that within a few days she’d be buried in a fosa comun, an unmarked public grave, with the other nine or 13 people who were murdered that day, if it was an average day in El Salvador.
If Paty identified the victim after she was buried in the fosa comun, it’d be much harder to get the body back; she would have to get an order from a judge and then have to stand there while men in white hazmat suits opened the grave.
When they folded back the black plastic, she’d look at the top-layer corpse: Is this your man?
She’d have to look closely, seeking clues — long hair, long nails — that this was a trans woman and examining the purple, ballooned skin for tattoos or scars that someone who loved this person would recognize.
No, not this one. Onto layer two.
Even if she came no closer than 50 meters away, the stench of bodies would seep into her, following her for the rest of the day. The living body doesn’t like to be near rotting dead ones.
So Paty put down the newspaper and rushed to the coroner’s office
The woman at the desk said what Paty expected: No, we can’t show you the body unless you’re biological family. Paty reasoned with her that the family might not know this transvesti was missing, or maybe the family abandoned the victim long ago. Paty may be the only family this person had left.
Finally, the woman behind the counter opened the door to the morgue and, although she forbade Paty from stepping into the room, uncovered the corpse for her. Paty recognized its profile. When looking through the coroner’s photos, Paty knew for sure. She took a deep breath and called Karla.
“Have you heard from Tania in the past 48 hours?”
Body identification form. A form, prepared by the San Salvador medical examiner, documenting the release of Tania Vasquez’s body — identified by her birth name and sex — to her family. SUPREME COURT OF JUSTICE OF EL SALVADOR
Death certificate. A Panchimalco death certificate for Tania Vasquez, identified here as as “Edwin Omar Vasquez Santos,” listing her cause of death as ballistic trauma to the skull. PANCHIMALCO OFFICE OF THE FAMILY STATUS REGISTRY
The apparatus went into motion: COMCAVIS and ASPIDH women got on their phones, they recalled, and by the end of the day, they had the money to give Tania a wake and a funeral. Karla said she convinced the local mayor to let them borrow the municipal van, which they used as a hearse. She tracked down Tania’s family and begged them to claim her. They were reluctant, but eventually agreed. Celia, accompanied by Karla and Diana, went back to the morgue, coffin in tow.
Later that night, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activists met up outside a supermarket on the outskirts of San Salvador and shoved themselves into the backs of pickups and vans. They caravanned to the wake together.
By 8 p.m., the group swept into Panchimalco. They lit the thin white candles and laid the COMCAVIS rainbow flag over the coffin, as if unfurling a protest banner or covering Tania in a blanket.
On the ride back from the wake, the van full of Tania’s friends fell silent.
Paty broke the tension with a laugh.
“When I die, I want you to buy the cheapest coffin and spend the rest on a bunch of good liquor,” she said. “I want you to sit around and enjoy each other.”
This is the way they avoided the question: Which of us will be next?
Tania’s wake. Tania Vasquez’s peers attend her wake in Panchimalco. At middle is COMCAVIS Executive Director Karla Avelar and Paty Hernandez, in the black T-shirt, on her right. D.M. MACKEY
MANY ACTIVISTS TRACE the beginning of LGBTI activism in El Salvador to a massacre in the 1980s, during the country’s civil war, when two battalions of the Salvadoran army raped and killed a dozen transgender women.
In response, LGBTI Salvadorans started a handful of organizations and began annual Pride celebrations in the 1990s. They quietly won support from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), El Salvador’s leftist political party.
And the support was needed: More than half of trans women in El Salvador say they’ve survived death threats or murder attempts. Beyond the violence, opportunities are limited. According to a joint study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Human Rights Ombudsman of El Salvador, the vast majority — 85% — are doing, or have done, sex work for survival. The majority are also very poor: half make less than $180 per month. (The minimum monthly wage in El Salvador is $262.)
In March 2009, flyers appeared on the streets announcing the coming of death squads targeting “gays and delinquents.” Activists still refer to what happened next as “Bloody June”: Seventeen trans women murdered in 30 days, most of them after being kidnapped and tortured.
Using violence to enforce silence isn’t new in this country. Although they don’t always occur in waves, murders are ongoing and discrimination is shockingly widespread. A 2011 poll asked Salvadorans whether they agreed that people had “the right to attack a trans person because of the way they are.” 85% said yes.
In her book Salvador, Joan Didion described the place where she learned “the exact mechanism of terror”: The Devil’s Door (La Puerta del Diablo). It is a craggy black precipice from which the army and death squads threw political dissidents’ bodies during the Salvadoran Civil War and it rises from the green hills that surround Panchimalco.
From the cemetery where Tania is now buried, the Devil’s Door looms tall. She grew up in its shadow.
TANIA SEEMS TO have tried to protect her family from her city life. But near the end, while spending a vacation in Panchimalco in 2012, Tania admitted she was afraid. She “told me that someone wanted to kill her,” Celia remembered. The week before, her downtown apartment was ransacked. Her aunt felt helpless, she said.
After the murder, Celia received repeated calls from an unknown phone number. On the other end of the line, she only heard silence.
Celia, who changed her phone number several weeks later, isn’t the only one who fears Tania’s killer.
COMCAVIS staff received threats scrawled on paper and in Facebook messages, so they installed security cameras and electrified razor wire around their then-office.
Even the prosecutor who was assigned to her case, Rafael Romero, was afraid, refusing to appear in photos for articles published in El Salvador “for security reasons,” he said.
What they fear is organized crime.
Since 2007, as the drug war has creeped northward, murder rates in the “Northern Triangle” — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — have skyrocketed to the highest in the world for a region not at war. Organized crime is especially scary because even public officials, such as police, judges and politicians, often help keep illicit business going.
Romero said that sex work makes a person especially vulnerable to organized crime, which “uses this population for its illicit activity.”
“It’s not that [the women] seek this out,” he said. “Many times, they end up involved because they fear what will happen if they say no.”
The first, which her peers believe is most likely, is revenge. Three weeks before death, Tania, working for COMCAVIS, accused jail guards of abusing transgender inmates.
After regularly beating and humiliating them, Tania wrote, one of the guards told the women, “I don’t give a shit about human rights.” He complained about giving HIV-positive inmates medicine, allegedly saying, “It’s as if this jail were a pharmacy with all the medicine they give these faggots. They’re already condemned [to death] anyhow.”
The guards may have hired a hit man to silence Tania, Karla believes.
Motive for murder. An official “denouncement of abuse” filed by Tania Vasquez weeks before her murder, accusing guards at a correctional facility in Sensuntepeque, El Salvador, of physically and mentally abusing transgender prisoners. One of the officers allegedly told prisoners, “I don’t give a shit about human rights” and complained about giving HIV-positive prisoners medication, saying: “It’s as if this jail were a pharmacy with all the medicine they give these faggots. They’re already condemned [to death] anyhow.” DEPARTMENT OF CABAÑAS
Tania’s friends also wonder if she was targeted by gang members. She may have owed extortion money. Or perhaps she made a mistake by moving into rival territory. In El Salvador, even if you aren’t a gang member, you’re marked by who controls your neighborhood. Tania’s downtown apartment was on a block controlled by the 18th Street gang, but Panchimalco is behind MS-13 lines.
A final theory, which Diana heard from another sex worker, is that Tania may have been forced into helping pass small quantities of drugs until something went wrong.
IN SUMMER 2014, at the attorney general‘s office in San Salvador, Romero stroked a four-inch stack of documents girded in slips of red paper: Tania’s investigation. He said they would “soon” be seeking the capture of “one or various people” but didn’t want to give more details.
“To not hurt the investigation,” he said.
Romero doesn’t believe that LGBTI Salvadorans face disproportionate levels of violence.
“El Salvador is a violent country,” he said.
He complained that transgender women who know details about Tania’s death refuse to talk. He admitted that would put them in danger.
This is what happens when organized crime meets impunity. Although the country does have a witness protection program that guarantees anonymity, someone — a court employee, a judge, a lawyer — often leaks information.
Witnesses are some of the “many people that have been killed for [testifying],” said Jessica Torres, an attorney in the Human Rights Ombudsman office.
“Testifying in this country is not an easy thing,” Torres said.
Tania’s friend Diana called it “a death sentence.”
Rafael Romero. Rafael Romero, the public prosecutor formerly assigned to Tania Vasquez’s case, refused to appear in photos for articles about the case published in the Salvadoran press — “for security reasons,” he said, referring to the country’s organized crime. D.M. MACKEY
Tania Vasquez’s case file. The case file on Tania Vasquez’s murder — a four-inch stack of documents bookended by slips of red paper. D.M. MACKEY
Jessica Torres. Jessica Torres, an attorney in El Salvador’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, said many people in El Salvador fear testifying in criminal cases. D.M. MACKEY
Kerlin Belloso, a human rights lawyer who has advised COMCAVIS on Tania’s case, said she sees a pattern with LGBT cases: They reach the prosecutor’s office and “never leave.” When prosecutions do happen, Belloso said, they’re often a sham, pinned on people easy to demonize.
In Tania’s case, “They may grab three or four gang members and blame them,” she said. “But I’m trying to prepare Karla psychologically: The homicide of Tania Vasquez will not be solved.”
In October 2013, COMCAVIS took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., alleging that the lack of answers about who killed Tania — and many others — violated international law. The Commission agreed, urging the government to act.
But to date, almost three years after the murder, the case remains open and no one has been apprehended. Romero was recently moved off the case “as a part of normal personnel changes,” said an official familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Activists could sue in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but the case could drag on for a decade. Winning isn’t assured, said Macarena Saez, an international human rights law expert at American University. But by refusing to give up, Saez said, Tania’s peers have found the key to long-term change: educating people about sexual diversity.
Trans activists say that when the government of El Salvador allows religious figures to intervene in politics, for instance, or when it doesn’t force public schools, employers or law enforcement to respect and include LGBTI identities, it is violating international human rights law. They argue that it’s the state’s job not only to find out who is murdering them, but to also stop the daily discrimination that leads to tragic ends.
NEAR THE END of Tania’s life, her aunt and cousins started to come to COMCAVIS workshops, an activist named Tatiana remembered. They helped set up tables and chairs beforehand, and lingered shyly behind the crowd during events, listening.
On April 18, 2013, fewer than three weeks before her murder, Tania sat at a table in a windowless conference room at the InterContinental Hotel in San Salvador. When someone wondered aloud whether local activism was translating into fewer LGBTI people fleeing for their lives, Tania slowly shook her head.
“It’s not enough,” she said, emotionless.
I knew Tania’s playful reputation. It was strange to see her deflated. I insisted that, from my perspective, they’d made important gains.
She stared at me, then lowered her eyes and looked away.