A Ray of Light for Paraguay's Trans Community

The conviction of the murderer of a trans woman in Paraguay was a small victory in an uphill battle.

November 26, 2019

Activists outside court on the day of the trial (Photo by William Costa)

On the morning of October 1, a crowd of activists from LGBTQ and human rights organizations gathered outside the courthouse of Luque, a city just outside Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. After draping colorful banners over the benches near the building’s entrance, they moved into the shade for the final few minutes of a wait that had dragged on for decades. They had come to witness a historic moment: Paraguay’s first trial for the murder of a trans woman.

The anticipation was rewarded several hours later. The suspected killer of Romina Vargas, who was stabbed to death in October 2017, was sentenced to 25-years imprisonment. This guilty verdict put an end to the almost total impunity that had previously been enjoyed by murderers of trans women in Paraguay. Before October 1, there had not been a single trial or prosecution in relation to the estimated 62 trans women killed in the country since the democratic transition in 1989, according to the trans rights organization Panambi. 

The judgement was greeted as a great victory for the trans community and is the result of tireless campaigning. However, it comes within a political and social climate that is increasingly hostile to LGBTQ people. Activists express concerns that despite winning certain battles, actions from the state and confrontational fundamentalist groups are reversing the advances that have been gained through the long fight for LGBTQ rights in the conservative country. 

Cold-blooded Murder

Romina Vargas died of stab wounds inflicted in broad daylight in San Lorenzo, another of the cities that make up the metropolitan area of Asunción. Shortly after the attack, Blas Amarilla—a 21-year-old man—was arrested nearby in possession of a bloodied blade. The police report stated that Amarilla had become known locally as the “knifer of transvestites,” as he was believed to have carried out violent attacks on at least three other trans women in the weeks before the murder of Vargas.

In an interview given to the C9N local news network the day of his arrest, a smiling Amarilla openly confessed the murder.

“I’m trying to kill all [trans women] if possible,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any more people like that.”

During the trial, Amarilla’s defense claimed he suffered from mental health issues. However, psychological exams determined that this did not absolve him from responsibility for the crime. Mariana Sepúlveda, a Panambi representative, stated that he has already attacked trans women within the jail in which he is now serving his sentence.

Though this case is particularly disturbing, violent expressions of hatred towards trans people are not a new phenomenon in Paraguay. While the government does not keep a record of murders of trans women, Panambi estimates there have been 62 murders since the beginning of Paraguay’s democratic transition in 1989. A 2014 report from the organization recovered the untold stories of 40 of these victims, including three who were executed by police officials.

Before the recent trial for the killing of Romina Vargas, these murders had all been met with almost total impunity. Sepúlveda said that Vargas’s case took a different course for two reasons: the outrageously blatant evidence and the untiring work of activists.

“For two years we were on the case of the district attorneys and the judges. We organized protests so that we wouldn’t see another case of impunity, as has happened so many other times,” said Sepúlveda. She also expressed hope that the judgement would set a precedent for future cases.

“I think that this verdict will make people think twice before injuring or murdering a trans person again. I think people often saw killing a trans as no worse than, say, killing a dog.”

Panambi is already campaigning to secure a trial for the murder of Ada Mía Naomi, a trans woman killed last year in the city of Paraguarí.

Light in the Darkness

While the result of the recent trial is viewed as an enormous success, trans activists emphasize that they continue to face staggering hardship and violence on multiple fronts within Paraguayan society. Since the trial, another trans woman has been murdered.  

“[This verdict] is a ray of light amid all the darkness that we face,” said Sepúlveda, “We trans are highly discriminated against in all areas: economically, socially, culturally, politically.”

Although the 1992 Paraguayan constitution explicitly prohibits all forms of discrimination, this has not been translated into specific laws and practices. A 2018 report from the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordination Group (CODEHUPY) highlights the dire need for a law universally criminalizing all forms of discrimination. In addition, Paraguay does not have a gender identity law—ruling out the possibility of changing identity and gender in official documents and registers. Paraguay is one of the few countries in Latin America that has not passed these types of laws.

This legislative vacuum contributes to widespread and unprohibited intolerance towards trans people. Vicky Acosta, president of Panambi, said, “We always say that the state is absent and that it has an enormous debt to the LGTBI population and even more so to the trans population.”

Acosta claimed that systemic discrimination within Paraguay’s education system greatly restricts many trans women’s employment opportunities. She said that this factor, coupled with widespread stigmatization from the general population, forces almost the entire trans population into sex work, excluding them from society and exposing them to great risk.

“We, the trans population, are the state’s prostitutes. They only want us to be stood on street corners without access to any other type of work,” said Acosta.

No Right to a Name

Discrimination is also notoriously visible within Paraguay’s healthcare system. Panambi members say that they are often refused attention by medical professionals.

The CODEHUPY report mentions that, although a resolution permitting the use of trans people’s chosen social name in medical institutions was passed in 2016, in practice, it is largely ignored by healthcare professionals, who force trans women to use their birth name. The resulting embarrassment causes many trans women to avoid accessing health services. The report recommends that measures be taken to rectify this situation.

The possibility of trans people legally changing their name is massively impeded by the absence of a gender identity law—the challenge of officially changing gender is not yet even contemplated. In spite of this unfavorable situation, Mariana Sepúlveda, along with fellow trans activist Yren Rotela, have been undertaking a battle for several years to have their chosen social names legally recognized.

Both activists had their requests to change name initially approved by judges, only to see the Public Prosecutor’s Office file appeals to block the decisions on the grounds that the name changes would cause confusion over their sex. 

Mariana Sepúlveda of Panambi (Photo by William Costa)

Pro-family or Anti-rights?

Beyond stalling the fight for the advance of the rights of trans rights—and LGBTQ rights more widely—through negligence and inactivity, the Paraguayan government has also been actively taking measures to restrict rights that have already been won.

Airym Sarta, of the lesbian rights group Aireana, said that while the LGBTQ community has become much more visible and vocal in recent times, “There has been a large regression over the last two years or so. There’s has been a very big conservative push seeking to take rights away from us.” 

Sarta stated that this is largely due to the increasing political and social influence of Catholic and evangelical fundamentalist groups. This ultra-conservative current deploys a “pro-life” and “pro-family” discourse that looks to exclude all forms of diversity related to gender and sexuality that do not conform with the heterosexual family unit. According to a 2017 LGBTQ human rights report, these groups have stimulated moral panic by presenting LGBTQ people as pathologically ill and as a danger to children.

These fundamentalist groups have managed to assert massive influence on authorities. Last year, both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies—the two governmental houses—voted to declare themselves officially pro-life and pro-family. An increasing number of local authorities have also been declaring that their towns and cities will adhere to these concepts.

The influence of this highly conservative agenda has had large repercussions on both Paraguay’s international and domestic policies. For example, in October 2017, just weeks before the murder of Romina Vargas, then-minister of education Enrique Riera approved a resolution banning all didactic materials containing reference to “gender ideology” from schools. “Gender ideology” is an umbrella term used by rightist groups to describe progressive visions of gender. This move was denounced by human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

On the international stage, in 2017, the Paraguayan government placed strong caveats on a resolution from the Organization of American States condemning discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender expression. Paraguayan representatives stated that, due to the country’s constitutional commitments to the rights of the family, they would interpret the phrase “gender expression” according to Paraguay’s own internal statutes. 

The 2017 LGBTQ rights report also mentioned that the Paraguayan government has attempted to limit the advance of LGBTQ rights within the Mercosur. The report highlighted the great legislative gap between Paraguay and the other members of the commercial and political union in regard to legislation on LGTBQ rights.

“We are the country in the region with the lowest amount of protection for LGTB rights,” said Sarta. 

What Happened in Hernandarias

The impact of fundamentalist groups is seen not only in the chambers of government but also on the streets.

On September 29, days before the conviction of Blas Amarilla for the murder of Romina Vargas, activists participating in an LGBTQ pride march in the eastern city of Hernandarias were attacked by pro-family groups.

Two days prior, Rubén Rojas, the mayor of Hernandarias, had signed a resolution prohibiting the planned march. The document stated that the ban looked to protect the right to life and the rights of families—the municipality of Hernandarias had previously declared itself pro-life and pro-family. In 2018, a LGBTQ march in the southern city of Encarnación was also met by a prohibitive resolution from local authorities.

Nataly Cabañas, of Amnesty International Paraguay, was an active participant in the Hernandarias march, which went ahead despite the resolution. She said that the marchers were far outnumbered by the conservative protestors who had gathered to disrupt the event.

“It was unbelievable, unthinkable—we didn’t expect so much violence,” she said.

Protestors verbally and physically attacked the marchers. Fireworks were thrown—one hit Cabañas, leaving her with burns across her leg. Her colleague Marcos Rojas had his nose broken by a punch to the face during the march.

Marcos Rojas, the Amnesty International activist whose nose was broken

“This violence had always been present on social media, but through what happened in Hernandarias it reached a physical level,” Cabañas said.

She said that police officers were present but did nothing to intervene in the violence—they were “mere observers.”  

Amnesty International is now undertaking legal action to have the resolution signed by the mayor of Hernandarias revoked.

In 2018, the first LGBTQ pride march to take place in the southern city of Encarnación was also met by prohibitive resolutions from local authorities. However, on that occasion, tensions did not spill over into physical violence.

On October 26, the mayor of Ciudad del Este—Paraguay’s second-largest city—accompanied by anti-rights protestors stormed a LGBTQ party that was being held as an act of resistance in the face of the recent violence in nearby Hernandarias. Again, LGBTQ activists were injured and the police, though present, were reported to have passively observed.

The Struggle Continues

The conviction in the case of Romina Vargas is of unmeasurable value for Paraguay’s trans population and the broader LGBTQ community. Beyond representing the delivery of justice, it provides hope and motivation to continue the battle to conquer rights in spite of the oppressive atmosphere.

While the sharpening of the anti-rights discourse from fundamentalist groups in recent years has made this struggle even more difficult, Vicky Acosta, president of Panambi, is clear that LGBTQ activists are also growing stronger and more determined.

“We exist. We are in every corner of the country. We want to be respected and we want to continue winning new rights. We’re not asking for privileges but for rights—just like any other Paraguayan citizen.”

William Costa is a freelance journalist based in Asunción, Paraguay. He concentrates on human rights and politics. 

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