By Gwen Aviles
A transgender woman died this month in her native El Salvador shortly after being deported from the U.S., according to the Salvadoran trans advocacy group Asociación Aspidh Arcoiris Trans (ASPIDH).
The woman, Camila Díaz Córdova, 31, joined one of the migrant caravans heading from Central America to the U.S. last year to escape violent threats, Mónica Linares, director of ASPIDH, told NBC News. Linares, who said she had known Díaz Córdova for 10 years, stated that the threats were frequent and dated back to at least 2014, when Díaz Córdova first filed a report with El Salvador’s National Civil Police.
Díaz Córdova, who Linares said petitioned for asylum while in the U.S., was deported back to El Salvador four to five months ago, though Linares was unaware of the specific deportation circumstances. Díaz Córdova’s friend Virginia, a member of ASPIDH, reported her missing in late January. On Jan. 31, ASPIDH discovered she had been admitted to Rosales National Hospital in San Salvador following an attack, and she died on Feb. 3, as first reported by The Washington Blade.
“Camila’s death makes the transgender community in El Salvador feel insecure,” Linares told NBC News. “There’s a failure of protection in El Salvador and a failure of protection in the United States. Camila had a lot of evidence, and she still was not given asylum.”
Asylum is a protection granted to those who meet the international law definition of a “refugee,” which means they were persecuted or fear persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Refugees must apply for asylum through the agency, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
Immigration services did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told NBC News they were unable to locate Díaz Córdova’s case.
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and evidence suggests LGBTQ individuals — and in particular transgender women — are an especially vulnerable population, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
“Transgender people are at particular risk in El Salvador due to political instability and violence, a fact that is established and well-documented,” according to Ty Cobb, director of the global initiative at the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization. “Our hearts break for Camila and all those who loved her.”
In 2017, the United Nations called for an investigation into the deadly violence against transgender women in El Salvador after seven trans women were reported killed in the country within five months (local LGBTQ activists suspect the actual number could be much higher). The Association for Communicating and Training Trans Women in El Salvador (COMCAVIS) reported a total of 28 serious attacks, most of them murders, perpetrated against LGBTQ people between January and September 2017.
Karla Avelar, who founded COMCAVIS, has been vocal about her struggles as an transgender activist in El Salvador. In a March 2017, Avelar told Reuters she faced at least three assassination attempts and was forced to flee her home six times in a two-year span. She fled El Salvador and requested asylum in Switzerland in late 2017, citing a lack of protection from Salvador authorities.
“Immigration is the door to get out of this circle of death. It is the only way they can imagine to have a real life,” Andrea Ayala, founder of the Salvadoran LGBTQ rights group ESMULES, told NBC News. “You migrate to be respected, to have a possibility to survive but most of all to live free and without fear of dying.”
Neela Ghosal, an LGBTQ researcher at Human Rights Watch, said she hopes Díaz Córdova’s death will motivate the U.S. to “re-evaluate” its approach to transgender asylum seekers.
“Violence against trans people is endemic, and it’s unconscionable that the United States would deport people back to those circumstances to meet their deaths,” Ghosal said.
Ayala emphasized the need to view asylum as a vital issue to the international LGBTQ community.
“I don’t want that blood to be spread in vain. I want to make it count, and thank those martyrs for our movement,” Ayala said of those who were killed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.