With the killing of six sex workers in Lima this year already, people are calling on the government to address the unequal treatment of transgender people.
A group of transgender women protest outside the police station in downtown Lima, Peru. Since the beginning of 2023, six trans women have been murdered in Peru. (All photos by Alfonso Silva-Santisteban, February 2023)
A wave of murders of trans women in Peru — six since the beginning of the year, after eight all of last year — has exposed a country unable or unwilling to protect trans people. And it has triggered protests demanding urgent action against gender violence.
“Justice! Justice! Justice!”
The voices of 70 trans women bounced off the front of the police station in the center of Lima in February 2023, generating an echo blocks away. Propped by banners and raised fists, they called out the names of the murdered victims in a roll call that demanded their country take note and stop the violence.
People march in the streets of downtown Lima Feb. 22, 2023, during the second rally to stop violence against trans women.
Since the beginning of 2023, six trans women have been murdered in Peru, five of them in Lima by a mafia of pimps, according to local media and activists.
The trigger seems to be a territorial dispute between local trans and cisgendered women from Venezuela over control of the sex trade in the downtown streets.
On Feb. 10, Lima municipal officials closed several of the old houses on a downtown avenue that served as hotels renting rooms by the hour. In them, several cisgender women, most of them migrants from Venezuela, engaged in sex work.
The closure forced the migrants to move to side streets, to areas usually used by trans women for sex work.
Congresswoman Susel Paredes (right) talks to a group of trans women outside the police station in downtown Lima, Peru. The banner at the back reads, “The state’s lack of interest in us is also transphobia.”
In Peru prostitution is not illegal. However, authorities try to sweep it under the rug by making street life difficult for the sex workers.
Unannounced and unprompted, they sometimes scoop the workers and take them to police stations for identity checks spiced with insults and beatings.
But the trade continues, a function of underlying problems such as lack of employment or poverty.
Protester outside the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, the national division in charge of confronting organized crime.
On Feb. 11, the day after the city closed the hotels, cisgender and trans women began arguing about who would use the streets. Insults, shoving and threats were all recorded by some trans women in the area.
One of those involved was Ruby Ferrer, a 33-year-old trans woman, who had migrated from Iquitos, a city in the Peruvian Amazon.
On Feb. 12, an alleged would-be client picked up Ruby, took her to a remote area in the north of Lima, and killed her. The killer filmed the murder and sent the video to other trans women as a threat.
On Feb. 13, 30-year-old Priscila Aguado was also kidnapped and murdered. Prior to those two, Erika Quintana, Ale Castillo, Fiorella Melgarejo and Camila Sanchez had been killed.
A group of trans women protest outside the Directorate of Criminal Investigation on Feb. 15, 2023.
In all of 2022, the LGBT Rights Observatory at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia recorded eight murders of trans women in Peru. So far this year they have already documented six.
The trans community has reacted with horror and rage. In WhatsApp groups, activists called for urgent action. On Feb. 15, dozens of trans women took to the streets of downtown Lima to protest. On that cloudy summer day, the light blue, white and pink that form the transgender pride flag stood out strongly.
They reached the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, the national division in charge of confronting organized crime. A banner read, “The state’s lack of interest in us is also transphobia.”
“We are not second-class citizens,” shouted one transgender woman to a group of policemen guarding the building. A couple of their leaders entered to meet with authorities.
“Exclusion is what exposes us to this type of violence,” said Leyla Huerta, director of Feminas, a transwomen community-based organization. “It’s not just the lack of job opportunities. It’s family violence, being kicked out of your house and not being able to educate yourself. They take away tools to defend us. This is how the cycle of violence that we live in begins.”
A group of trans men hold the transgender pride flag in front of the Supreme Court in Lima.
About six out of 10 trans women have prostitution as their main source of income in the absence of other opportunities, according to a study by Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia.
The first community protest caught the attention of the media. The following week there was another rally. This time protesters numbered in the hundreds. After the second rally, high-ranked police officers committed to solving the cases, but so far there have been no arrests.
Peru and Paraguay are the only countries in South America that do not recognize the identity of trans people in their laws, a fact that limits their citizenship.
Transgender women protest outside the Directorate of Criminal Investigation demanding action from police to stop violence against them.
Some of the recent murders in Peru could be signaled as hate crimes, says Congresswoman Susel Paredes, who has presented a bill seeking to punish this type of violence in Peru.
“Hate crime is a crime motivated by bias,” Paredes said. “It is a crime in which a trait of a person’s identity motivates the act.”
Paredes said that a person’s ethnic origin, gender identity, religion or sexual orientation could all come under attack and that the murder of a transgender sex worker is a threat to the entire community. “That’s another characteristic of hate crimes,” Paredes said.
Congresswoman Susel Paredes (left) and activists Gianna Camacho (center) and Leyla Huerta (right) talk to protesters outside the police station in downtown Lima.
Ruby Ferrer was shot 30 times. Her death was used as a threat to peers as it can be seen in a horrific video, confirmed by police.
In the United States and Europe, there are laws against hate crimes. In Peru, many times these cases bypass the justice system.
A study conducted by the office of the Attorney General in Peru found that 68% of the murders of LGBTQ people committed between 2013 and 2021 had signs of violence based on prejudice against the sexual orientation or gender identity of victims. However, only 2% of cases considered had been investigated as such.
“We need a justice system that applies the fundamental principles of law,” says Marisol Fernandez, a professor of gender and law at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. “Some legal operators transfer all their prejudices when intervening, which in the recent cases are against sex work, but also against trans people.”
Dayana Valenzuela, the first transgender woman to enter the Miss Peru beauty pageant, but denied entry, talks to the crowd protesting outside the Directorate of Criminal Investigation.
Discrimination, marginalization and violence are a reality for many trans people in the world. But in some countries laws are more protective and societies can be more open. Latin America accounts for almost seven out of 10 murders of trans people registered globally in 2022, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project.
Activists who track global violence against trans people say the recent attacks in Peru are among the most extreme anywhere.
The severity of the violence has served to unite the trans community and raise awareness among some media and stakeholders about the severe gaps that lead to the canceling of the rights of transgender people in the country.
Even the most basic right, the right to live.
The transgender pride flag waves outside the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, the national division in charge of confronting organized crime. Peru is one of the few countries in South America that does not recognize the identity of trans people in the law, a fact that limits their citizenship.
Three questions to consider:
- What seemed to be at the heart of the attacks on sex workers in Lima, Peru?
- Should sex workers be treated differently than other people when it comes to police protection?
- Should crimes against people based on gender identity be treated differently than other violent crimes?
Alfonso Silva-Santisteban is a public health physician, researcher and photojournalist based in Lima, and a fellow in global journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.