Cross-Dressing in the Crosshairs

In recent months Rodrigo Lopez, a transvestite human rights campaigner from the quiet Region V town of Los Andes, has suffered repeated verbal and physical harassment, including telephone and e-mail death threats and an arson attempt.

Two months ago, according to Lopez, head of the Aconcagua Province chapter of the Transvestite Association of Chile, someone threw a firebomb into a room where he and several other association members were meeting. At the time of the attack there were 18 people in the building. "We almost died," he said.

So far authorities have made no apparent effort to investigate the arson attempt, claims Lopez. Nor have police responded to a complaint he filed on Dec. 18, 2003, after an unidentified person fired several bullets in his direction. The same lack of response came for a third complaint, filed on Dec. 22, when someone tried to run Lopez and a companion over with a car.

These incidents, unfortunately, are not isolated, says the Transvestite Association leader. Last year alone, over 30 other individuals in Aconcagua Province were the victims of attacks directed against sexual minorities. In 2002, furthermore, there were 32 such incidents in the province, where a constant flow of traffic between Santiago and Mendoza, Argentina -- Lopez estimates that 600 trucks per week pass through the area -- sustains a busy sex trade. As far as nationwide statistics are concerned, the human rights activist admits he does not have exact figures, though he estimates there could be as many as 300 incidents of abuse against homosexuals per year.

Even more alarming are the circumstances surrounding the 2002 deaths of two area transvestites, suspected by many, including Lopez, of being murdered. In April 2002, authorities discovered the half-burned body of 23-year-old transvestite Vladimir Mario Ibanez. The young man's death has yet to be officially ruled as a homicide. Then, on Dec. 3, the cut-up remains of another transvestite, 22-year-old Boris Javier Covarrubias, were also discovered.

"There is a plot that is being covered up here," according to Lopez, who suspects that he and other area homosexuals are being victimized by an organized group that may involve local businessmen and that counts on high-level protection within police and government ranks.

Last year Lopez made repeated attempts to draw government attention to the ongoing string of human rights abuses, sending off declarations to Minister of the Interior Jose Miguel Insulza, Justice Minister Luis Bates, the Supreme Court in Santiago and to the office of President Ricardo Lagos himself. The government has so far offered no response.

The Transvestite Association president has, however, recently gained the attention of Amnesty International, which published an article last week demanding that Chilean authorities "act to show that these crimes of hate will not be tolerated, and that the perpetrators will be investigated and prosecuted."

"Ignoring these crimes," according to Amnesty International, "sends a signal to the wider community that these threats are not important and that hatred and violence towards the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transvestite) community is acceptable."

In the meantime, Lopez, whose term as the Transvestite Association of Chile chapter president does not expire until 2006, insists he will keep up his campaign efforts. In addition to writing more letters, he plans to organize demonstrations.

"I hope we don't have any fatal victims in 2004," he commented.

Benjamin Witte is a U.S. journalist in Santiago, Chile.

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