'They told me that I was going to die': The US says El Salvador is safe for migrants, but transgender women living there fear for their lives

Bryan Avelar
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Bryan Avelar


  • The Trump administration recently struck a deal with El Salvador, designating it a "safe third country" that can take in migrants the United States doesn't want.
  • But El Salvador is among the most violent countries in the world, and it's particularly unsafe for transgender people.
  • Yolanda Ramîrez is seeking asylum in the US after she was beaten and several of her friends killed for being transgender.
  • She has been waiting nearly two years for her asylum request to be processed so that she can receive refuge.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

EL SALVADOR — Yolanda Ramîrez lives near the southern coast of El Salvador in the small city of San Luis Talpa, where she says she is the only trans woman left.

Members of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) have attempted to kill her for being transgender, and so she is trying to escape death by asking for asylum in the United States. She is convinced that there is no life left for her in El Salvador.

Yolanda (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) is one of 46,800 Salvadorans who applied for asylum in another country in 2018, according to the United Nations Agency for Refugees (UNHCR). According to a report from the International Crisis Group, 94% of El Salvador's municipalities have gang activity. Gang violence, easy access to guns, and corruption have made El Salvador the murder capital of the world

Despite that, on September 20th, the Salvadoran government signed an agreement with the Trump administration designating it a "safe third country," a term used by experts to describe countries that are willing to receive the asylum requests the United States does not want. In keeping with this decision, El Salvador's traveling warnings were downgraded this week from a level three (reconsider traveling) to a level two (exercise increased caution) warning.

The Salvadoran government has also stepped up its border patrol in order to prevent movement across its border. People cannot get in or out.  

The transgender population's situation is especially precarious because transgender people are targeted by both gangs and police. The culture of machismo is ingrained in Salvadoran culture, and being gay is often reason enough to be killed.

El Salvadoran gang MS-13 targeted Yolanda because she is transgender

Yolanda was born and raised in San Luis Talpa, a municipality controlled by the MS-13 and Barrio 18, the two most numerous gangs in El Salvador.

Yolanda says this past year MS-13 attempted to kill her. "I was with my friend, who was also a trans girl. It was night, and the gang members arrived, took us to a corner, and undressed us. They told me they were going to burn my hair with a lighter. In the end, they stole our things and left us naked on the street," she said.

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Many of the other trans women have left the area following run-ins with the gang. Locals referred to the mass exodus of trans women as "el éxodo de las mujeres vestidas" which translates to "the exodus of the dressed women."

Yolanda's transition began after her father's death. In February 2016, she went out for the first time in women's clothes. That same day, her best friend, a transgender woman named Yasuri Orellana, was killed.  

"That day we had a dance to celebrate Valentine's Day," Yolanda told Insider. "I didn't want to go to that party, but my friend Elizabeth — also a trans woman — convinced me. I remember telling her we would go and we promised not to get drunk that night."

She and Elizabeth waited for Yasuri near the San Luis Talpa town hall, but Yasuri never arrived.   

"Yasuri was killed near the police station and nobody helped her," Yolanda said. "We believe the police didn't help her because she was a transgender woman. They didn't want us there either."

"It was as if the earth had swallowed them"

At Yasuri's wake the following day, Yoland's friend Elizabeth Castillo received several cell phone calls instructing her to walk to a remote location a half-mile away from the wake.

It's unclear why she agreed to go, but Elizabeth was met up the road by several MS-13 gang members. They killed her.

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Two transgender women had been killed in less than 24 hours, prompting other transgender people to flee. Another transgender woman, Daniela Flores, was killed the same month. 

"There were several trans women back then. But after my friend, Elizabeth was murdered, they all left town," Yolanda said. "It was as if the earth had swallowed them. Some went to Mexico, others to Guatemala, and some were killed. Today, there are some openly gay people, but I am the only remaining trans woman in San Luis Talpa."

A kidnapping and a brutal rape

In November 2017, Yolanda went to a quinciañera. She was enjoying the afternoon until someone approached her and asked her to leave the party — someone was waiting outside for her. 

"At first, he told me a relative of mine was calling for me, but I didn't believe him. He was very insistent and, finally, he threatened me and told me that, if I didn't go out on my terms, I would go out on his. So, I went out and two men were waiting for me outside.

The two men waiting for Yolanda outside the party took her to an alley where six other men were waiting. There they told her they were all MS-13s and that they were going to kill her. The gang members beat and tortured Yolanda for about half an hour, leaving her with scars on her arms, face, and back.  

"They kicked me and I fell to the ground. They told me that I was going to die, said they were going to kill me. I remember the blows. They beat me until I passed out," Yolanda said.

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When she woke up, her clothing was torn and she was semi-naked. She opened her eyes and saw the eight men, talking and laughing at her. When they realized she was awake, they continued to beat her.

"I don't know how long it had been since I passed out, but when I woke up they told me to put on my clothes, said they were going to count to three for me to run and said that they were going to chase me. I ran as fast as I could, until I stumbled upon a neighbor's house," she said. 

It was only after she was safely away from the gang that she realized she'd been raped. 

"I don't know if it happened with some object or if they did it themselves, but I had to go to the doctor that same night because I had a hemorrhage. Then I spent a week in healing," she said. 

As Yolanda waits for her asylum request to process, she lives in fear

Yolanda stayed in San Luis Talpa for another two months, barely leaving her house. Eventually, she was connected with the Institute of Human Rights of the Central American University. They provided her with psychological and legal help.

Now, she is waiting for her asylum request — filed in January 2018 — to process so she can eventually move to the US. Last year, El Salvador was the country that made the most asylum requests to the US and made the sixth most requests from all the countries in the world.

While the asylum process continues, Yolanda lives as a refugee. She's staying with a friend's family, who, despite their economic difficulties, give Yolanda food and shelter.

Yolanda stops for a moment while telling her story, and talks about how she imagines a country where there are no gang members.

"I don't know… it must be strange. I guess it would be hard to walk fearlessly. I would always feel like someone wanted to kill me. But maybe later, after a long while, I could be happy and be who I want to be without anyone wanting to kill me for doing so."

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