Guatemala’s LGBTQ+ community is in mourning after two transgender women and a gay man were murdered in less than a week during pride month.
Andrea González, a prominent activist and leader in the transgender women’s organisation Otrans Reinas de la Noche (Queens of the Night) was shot dead on 11 June in the street near her home in Guatemala City. Her murder followed the killing of another Otrans member, Cecy Ixpatá, who was assaulted and died from her injuries on 9 June in a hospital in Salamá, about 50 miles north of Guatemala City. José Manuel Vargas Villeda, a 22-year-old gay man was also shot and killed on 14 June in Morales, 150 miles north-east of the capital.
“It sends a message of terror and fear to the entire LGBTQ+ community around the country,” said Henry España, of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, an autonomous state institution.
“It should be a month for celebration but ends up being a month of mourning,” he said.
The killings take the total number of LGBTQ+ people murdered this year to 13, compared with 19 in all of 2020. In the absence of reliable government tracking, a network of LGBTQ+ groups set up a national observatory to record the killings.
Pandemic restrictions limited attendance at González’s wake and burial on Sunday, with only her closest relatives, friends and colleagues present.
“She was someone who was full of strong conviction,” said España, a friend of González through their years of LGBTQ+ rights work. “She was very funny. She always made you laugh.”
González, 28, grew up in Guatemala City and went on to study nursing. She joined Otrans in 2013 as a community health promoter, worked as a nurse at the group’s trans women’s health clinic, was the organisation’s executive director, and ultimately became its legal representative.
“That allowed her to take part in spaces at the national level … and also at the international level, always working for the defence of the human rights of trans women,” said Aura Rodríguez, communications coordinator at Otrans.
“Every day the human rights of trans people are being violated,” she said. “The killings reveal how a state that does not ensure recognition of gender identity can not only violate rights every day through a lack of conditions for access to health, education, work and security, but also fails to protect its citizens.”
Aldo Dávila, a longtime LGBTQ+ activist and the first openly gay man in Guatemala’s congress, does not think it is a coincidence that the spate of killings occurred during pride month.
“It is truly worrisome. There has been an escalation of violence [against LGBTQ+ people],” he told the Guardian.
To Dávila, the violence is tied to homophobic and transphobic discourse, including from public officials, but also reflects a broader discrimination and violence against other marginalised groups, including indigenous people and women.
“There is persecution and criminalisation of human rights defenders,” he said. “In Guatemala we are experiencing democratic backsliding that we have not seen since the 1980s.”
There are no legal protections in Guatemala from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Proposed LGBTQ+ rights bills have been spiked in congressional committees before they can make it to a vote.
“Discourse has so much to do with it,” Dávila said of the violence he and other LGBTQ+ people face.
Threats, assault and discrimination are the crimes most reported by LGBTQ+ people in Guatemala and the Public Prosecutor’s Office receives roughly 150 criminal complaints a year, said España. The Public Prosecutor’s Office and National Institute of Forensic Sciences now have designations for LGBTQ+ victims of violence and killings, but their use has been erratic.
“It is very difficult to have exact numbers,” said Yahir Zavaleta, the Mexico City-based coordinator of Diversxs, an Amnesty International LGBTQ+ rights project.
While some Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina have standarised procedures and more reliable official statistics for killings and violence against LGBTQ+ people, Guatemala and many other countries do not, he said.
Guatemala’s LGBTQ+ movement has cancelled this year’s pride march due to rising Covid-19 cases. The country’s vaccination rate is one of the lowest in the Americas and many public hospitals are under strain.
Otrans has been calling for the state to create conditions that enable LGBTQ+ people to lead dignified lives, and to pass a comprehensive trans rights law. The group is also calling for unity within the LGBTQ+ community.
“These killings are not going to stop, unfortunately,” said Rodríguez, “in a state that displays hate toward its population.”