There is a pattern to the attacks in Guatemala. The victims call the first step “profiling”. They are spotted, monitored, and followed. They are seen in one of the LGBTI spaces that dot the country’s bigger cities, and they are targeted because of their sexuality or gender identity.
Next comes the waiting. The attackers bide their time until their victims are, in their own words, “at their most vulnerable”: walking home alone at night, working on badly-lit streets, separated from the support of their friends and community. Then, when the time is right, they attack.
This was the pattern of an assault on Somos- an LGBTI organisation in central Guatemala City, earlier this month. Marco Loarca, the organisation’s director, can’t say for sure how long they had been watched. All that’s known is that the taxi driver taking one volunteer home late one chilly December night made an unexpected stop. There, in a dark corner of Guatemala’s capital, a group of men entered on either side of the taxi, trapping the volunteer. Though he didn’t recognise them, they seemed to know him well. They taunted him and recounted his daily activities, describing his family, his friends, his work and involvement in the LGBTI community in unsettling detail. All the while, the taxi drifted further from its supposed destination, closer and closer to the dense woodland that lines the outskirts of the city.
The attacks are always brutal and unrelenting. They take place in the most remote and invisible corners of the countryside; far enough away that passersby would never be able to hear the screams, although it is unlikely that anyone would stop and help even if they could. That night, the Somos volunteer was taken to a dark thicket on the side of the road and thrown out of the taxi onto the damp forest floor. There, lying alone in the dirt, he was beaten to a bloody pulp. In what has become a hallmark of homophobic and transphobic attacks in Guatemala, the attackers hit and gouged his eyes, as if they wanted not only to injure and intimidate him, but also to incapacitate him. When they finished, they took his wallet, and left him lying face-down in the brush. Abandoning the victim in a quiet, secluded spot is the final step in the pattern of homophobic violence that is ravaging Guatemala.
The volunteer could be considered one of the lucky ones; at least he made it out alive. In the first nine months of 2018 alone, 24 LGBTI people were murdered and abandoned in places just like this. Just like the Somos volunteer, they were targeted not only for being LGBTI, but also for standing up and fighting for LGBTI rights.
Marco tells me that there have been four such attacks on Somos volunteers over the past year. Fortunately, none of the victims have died. Unfortunately, none of the cases have been resolved. In a country that is infamous for its gang violence, the true motives for homophobic violence are often simply erased, and attacks are almost always labelled by authorities as merely “robberies gone wrong”. But Marco knows that isn’t true. He has received 269 reports of attacks on LGBTI people in Guatemala. Every one followed the same pattern. Only seven were investigated.
“ Guatemala has pushed its LGBTI community into darkness and out of sight.
According to the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People, just 26 per cent of reports of transphobic violent assaults in Guatemala ever receive any kind of follow-up response from the police. The number actually prosecuted is far, far lower.
In many cases, like that of the Somos volunteer, the victims never report the attack. Sometimes it is due to a fear of reprisal, a sense that they were fortunate to survive at all and shouldn’t push their luck. Others know that the authorities will probably never take action, and would rather try to forget than risk being retraumatised by the people and agencies that are supposed to protect them. For many other invisible victims, their reasons for remaining silent run far deeper. Living in an environment as hostile to their sexuality or gender identity as Guatemala, they have simply internalised the violence they experience, blaming themselves for who they are. Just like the victims left hidden in the forests surrounding the capital, Guatemala has pushed its LGBTI community into darkness and out of sight.
Somos is an organisation fighting to bring the community back into the light. It emerged almost by accident seven years ago, slowly gaining momentum and shifting from an open, informal gathering consisting of Marco, his friends and like-minded young people, to a centre for support, advocacy and community-building. In spite of its growth, Somos has tried not to lose sight of its grassroots – it is still one of the only safe spaces for LGBTI Guatemalans, and they open their doors to the community every weekend.
This background is reflected in their name- Somos translates to ‘We Are’, while the full title is, on paper, Association ‘We Are Diverse Youths in Action’. When ask Marco what Somos means, he tells me simply, “We are lesbians, we are gays, we are trans, and we are friends”.
The team is composed almost entirely of volunteers, and they operate on virtually no resources or technical expertise. Some days, when Marco’s friends are available, they provide counselling to their members, but it is never enough. As they have grown, they have created more demand for their services, and they can barely keep up the pace.
Somos and other community organisations step in where the Guatemalan government refuses to tread. They breach the taboos of sex and sex work, they educate about HIV and drugs, and they build a sense of self-esteem and pride. But most of all, Marco says, Somos is “a discrimination-free space, where people can find information about their human rights. Because without knowing their rights, how can the people demand them?”
The hostility LGBTI people face in the streets is echoed in Congress. The current President of Guatemala, former TV comedian Jimmy Morales, rode his way into power on the back of the powerful Evangelical Christian lobby and a surge of right-wing populism, and his policies and public speeches have played right into their hands. Speaking before the UN General Assembly in September, he claimed to “represent a Guatemala of strong traditions and belief in God, which loves the traditional family and life from conception”.
Under his stewardship, the proposed ‘Law for the Protection of Life and Family’ wormed its way through Congress for two years. In addition to criminalising miscarriage, the bill defined homosexuality as “incompatible with the genetic and biological characteristics of human beings”, prohibited teaching children that “sexual conduct that differs from heterosexuality is normal”, and defended the supposed “right to not accept sexual diversity or gender ideology”.
The bill was stalled indefinitely in September due to a massive grassroots surge by Somos and other LGBTI organisations, but there is always another battle on the horizon. Now, Marco is busy pushing a proposal to curb HIV and reduce stigma, a first for Guatemala. At the same time, he is continuing the slow, steady slog to end discrimination in the police, the education system, and employment.
But homophobia and transphobia are just one part of a complex web of discrimination that has torn through Guatemala’s social fabric. Indigenous LGBTI people continue to face discrimination from their own tribes and the LGBTI community alike. Somos has received reports of lesbian women being forced into ‘corrective marriages’ with men, and even lynchings of lesbian couples. Most worrying for Marco are the young people who have been thrown out of their homes. “When they kick you out of your home in Guatemala, you start dying immediately. You start dying because you have to work on the street.”
The discrimination and violence plaguing Guatemala relies on keeping its victims in the darkness. Somos gives LGBTI people the chance to step into the light, if they feel able for it. “Some people say that if you are silent, you are complicit, but in Guatemala, the situation is more complex. Being visible can make you a target, but think that it is because we are invisible that people target us”.
In spite of the violence, Guatemala City saw 30,000 people take to the streets last summer in a Pride parade organised to combat violence and discrimination, and commemorate the victims of homophobia. Ultimately, Marco explains, that is just what Somos are“We are victims leading victims… but just because we are victimised, it doesn’t mean we can’t be agents of change”.
For seven years, Somos has been working tirelessly to lift the community out from the dark, secluded spaces it has been pushed into. It is a struggle that is motivated by fear as much as hope. On the one hand, there is the dream of a Guatemala that can be just like Somos – a “discrimination free space”. On the other hand, there is the reality of a cold, uncaring country that has turned its back on LGBTI people. “They are killing us”, Marco tells me, “and we are dying in silence”.