Aldo Alexander Peña, a transgender officer in El Salvador's Metropolitan Agents Corps (CAM), spoke out this week about a brutal beating, arrest, and intimidation he allegedly experienced at the hands of National Civil Police (PNC) hours after San Salvador's June 27 Sexual Diversity March.
That morning, as Peña told independent newspaper The Lighthouse, he had proudly marched in the pride parade with Generation Transgender Men, a Salvadoran advocacy group. He and his friends were especially excited this year because they'd learned the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled for nationwide marriage equality the day before, and they expected that might have some positive influence on LGBT rights in their own country.
Peña arrived at the parade costumed as a police officer, wearing his official CAM outfit with the insignias removed, but was not acting as an officer that day. If he had been, he reflected to the newspaper, he might not have become an alleged target of the PNC later that night.
Peña told The Lighthouse that several hours after the parade ended, he got into an altercation with a city bus driver who hadn't stopped to pick up Peña's friend Aida Sonia Perez as she was running to catch the bus. Peña says he yelled at the driver and then asked to get off the bus, but the man refused, instead driving to the nearest PNC substation. When the bus arrived several officers ordered everyone off the vehicle, Peña said.
What happened next left the trans activist with several broken ribs, a skull fracture, numerous bruises and cuts, mild brain swelling, and enough injury to his left eye socket that he was afraid he'd lose sight — so much damage to so many parts that he would simply be diagnosed as having "multiple trauma," much like many of El Salvador's car accident victims are, notes The Lighthouse. Yet the police and Peña have very different stories about how his injuries occurred.
The police report says Peña and Perez — who had continued to follow the bus until she reached the station — became aggressive with officers. PNC head Hugo Salinas told The Lighthouse that three officers were deployed to subdue the pair and that even several of the passengers who had remained to watch the altercation had helped to hold Peña down. The report says his face became bruised and lacerated when he fell to the sidewalk.
"Obviously, the officer didn't hit [Peña] in the face. The police didn't do that," Salinas told the newspaper. "We have a legal framework for action, different levels of force. When a person can respond to verbal commands, there's no need to do anything else. If he gets violent and has committed a crime, then the police use phsyical force in the technical ways that they've been taught."
But Peña and Perez dispute Salinas's account, saying that agent Luis Jesus Rivera Salgado did hit Peña in the face almost immediately and went on to use "excessive force" along with eight other officers, causing the serious facial trauma Peña exhibits in pictures he covertly released to the press through a friend. Peña told The Lighthouse that Salgado pinned him to the ground by sitting on his abdomen and pressing an arm against his neck, and then the other officers rushed over to begin beating him.
"Those guys hit and kicked me in the ribs, the head, everywhere," Peña explained to the newspaper in Spanish. "They almost dragged Sonia [Perez] into the group." Perez corroborates Peña's account.
— Adriana Montenegro (@adrimonteblack) June 29, 2015.
Peña and Perez believe Peña was targeted because he is openly transgender. They say PNC officers could have easily seen him marching earlier in the parade; alternately, a Generation Transgender Men leader, Rivera, told San Salvador newspaper The Page they could also have known because Peña lives near the Delgado City police substation. Rivera added that Peña informed him police officers had announced "[we'll] treat you like a man" right before beginning to hit Peña.
After being subdued Peña was handcuffed and taken in to the station, where his feet were chained to the floor. Perez was cuffed to a chair. Peña learned he'd been charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.
Peña tells The Lighthouse he lost consciousness and awoke two hours later when a police officer began beating him. "I immediately knew that the worst hadn't happened yet," he recalled. "I was tied down and yet he was beating me savagely. I was in shock, listening to [Perez] screaming. The officer said to me, 'You say you're a man, but you're just trying to be a man.'"
Eventually the attack stopped, and Peña says he and Perez were placed next to each other. They recall one officer who showed them kindness, bringing over a crate of water. Half an hour later, help finally arrived in the form of William Hernandez, a leader of prominent El Salvador LGBT rights group Among Friends Association, who was accompanied by a lawyer. Hernandez told The Lighthouse he was informed of Peña's beating by another LGBT activist who had been on the same bus.
Trans activist Sebastian Cerritos also showed up and was able to quietly snap the picture of Peña handcuffed with a disfigured face. The image — much like that of the swollen face of an April victim of police brutality, Brazilian trans woman Verônica Bolina — would immediately begin spreading through LGBT rights groups (pictured in the tweet below) and on social media with the #JusticiaParaAlex ("Justice For Alex") hashtag.
Organizaciones LGTBI piden justicia por violar derechos humanos a transgénero identificado como Aldo Alexander Peña pic.twitter.com/Waa8f9cGKd
— Tania™Martínez (@colochamar) June 29, 2015
Activists began "call[ing] halfway around the world," said Hernandez, telling the story of what had happened to Peña to the PNC's inspector general, the Department of the Defense of Human Rights. and the Ministry of Social Inclusion — all of whom began investigating the allegations. Still, Peña remained in custody. At around midnight, three hours after he was beaten, Hernandez said Peña was taken to a separate station for medical attention, where one officer allegedly tried to intimidate the pair.
Hernandez recalled the man taking out his gun and loading it. The officer, he said, then began to flick the trigger, lightly grabbing it with a finger and letting it go several times. When Hernandez became upset and said, "Get that shit out of here," the officer came over to confront him, but a member of the inspector general's team got between them, according to Hernandez's account. He said the police office told him and Peña they should be "grateful" that Peña was merely beaten because he could have been shot and left "in the gutter."
Peña was kept in the hospital until June 29 so doctors could observe his injuries, which had the potential to leave him with permanent brain damage, hindering him from articulating words or concentrating fully, according to The Lighthouse. He was then returned to a PNC police substation where, he told the newspaper, he was kept in a separate cell between the men's and women's sections (where Perez was still being held as well). When he asked a police commander why he was held separately, the man jokingly replied, "We can't put we with the women or the men, because you could become their mayor."
One day after Peña's arrest, San Salvador Mayor Najib Bukele called for Peña's early release and demanded a public apology for the PNC's "act of hate and abuse of power" on Twitter.
Exijo a las autoridades de la @PNC_SV la INMEDIATA liberación de nuestro agente del CAM, golpeado y arrestado por su orientación sexual.
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) June 28, 2015
La Institución demanda la liberación inmediata de nuestro agente y una disculpa pública por un claro hecho de odio y abuso de poder. @PNC_SV
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) June 28, 2015
David Morales, El Salvador's attorney for the defense of human rights, echoed those sentiments in several tweets, saying:
"We take seriously the injuries caused to the trans person and the Department of the Defense of Human Rights presumes that there was use of violent, arbitrary, and disproportionate force by the National Civil Police. I have told the prosecutor general's office and the PNC to investigate the possible motive for this hate and discrimination."
Attorney general Luis Martinez replied on Twitter that his office was undertaking an investigation into Peña's treatment.
Hemos constatado seriedad de lesiones contra persona trans y PDDH presume por ahora uso de violencia arbitraria y desproporcionada por PNC.
— PDDH David Morales (@ProcuradorDDHH) June 28, 2015
Dictaré resolución formal y vigilaré actuación PNC y FGR, dado posible motivo de odio y discriminacion a la base de esta agresión policial.
— PDDH David Morales (@ProcuradorDDHH) June 28, 2015
— luis martinez (@luism_abogado) June 28, 2015
Peña was released from custody July 3 but still faces charges of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. He and his supporters have taken to social media to denounce El Salvador's prison system, using the hashtags #SoyHombreTrans ("I'm a Trans Man") and #YoApoyoLaReformaPenal ("I Support Penal Reform.").
El Salvador continues to see an epidemic of violence against trans people, especially women. According to Hernandez of Among Friends Association, at least 12 Salvadoran trans women have been murdered this year. Last month the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for the country's government to acknowledge the deadly trend and increase protections for all LGBT citizens in the wake of the murder of prominent trans rights activist Francela Méndez Rodríguez.