The current demand for historical memory, collective reparations and justice for gays and travestis in Ecuador extirpates the harms of the 1980’s and 1990’s from the grasp of oblivion and impunity. Español.
Purita Pelayo/Alberto Cabral and Coccinelle during the 1990's. From the archive of Wambra Radio. All rights reserved.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s in Ecuador, gay, travesti and transexual people suffered extreme persecution and violent repression at the hands of the police, including extortion, arbitrary and indefinite detention, torture and extrajudicial execution.
When Ecuador decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, the police repression reduced slightly while neo-Nazi groups began ‘social cleansing’ practices against this population in the late 1990’s and 2000’s including ongoing harassment, death threats, and assassinations. As there were no accessible state entities to report a grievance, these human rights violations were never investigated or sanctioned.
In 2007, President Rafael Correa mandated the Ecuadorian Truth Commission to investigate human right violations during the period of 1984-2008, with a specific focus on the administration of León Febres Cordero 1984-1988. Issues related to homophobia and transphobia were inserted in the final report of the Ecuadorian Truth Commission as contextual elements because the Commissioners contracted a gender consultant.
The initial research design was not created to take harms against gender and sexual minorities into account. Of the 119 legal cases the truth commission passed to the Attorney General’s office for prosecution, one case is emblematic of torture of gay men in prison.
Given this outstanding issue of impunity and the need to systematize the human rights violations that occurred to this population during the 1980’s and 1990’s, on May 17, 2019 the human rights organization Fundación Regional de Asesoría de Derechos Humanos’ (INREDH) political litigation team and Transfeminine and Gay Front of Ecuador – “Nueva Coccinelle” - presented the Attorney General’s office with a legal claim evidencing grave violations of human rights; the assassination of 72 gay, travesti and transsexual people during the 1980s an 1990s. Specifically, the legal claim frames these violations as crimes against humanity and persecution in relation to police repression.
The violations are typified as “a general and systematic attack of a civilian population due to identity and gender” reflected in the articles 86 an 89 of the Ecuadorian penal code. As May 17 marks the international day against homophobia and transphobia, the day’s action included a march to the Attorney General’s office, the formal delivery of the legal claim, a meeting with the representatives of the Truth Commission, and a rally outside of the Attorney General’s office.
As INREDH executive coordinator Luis Ángel Saavedra explains, this initiative to break decades of impunity came to pass because one day Purita Pelayo, also known as Alberto Cabral, one of the travesti survivors of the repressive period, proposed to write a book from the perspective of la Asociación Gay Transgénero Coccinelle, to chronicle the persecution of the gay, travesti and transsexual population in Ecuador during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Coccinelle formed in the late 1990’s in response to these ongoing abuses with the visionary goal of decriminalizing homosexuality.
As an ex-member of Coccinelle, Purita Pelayo was well aware that the few survivors are over 65 years of age and they are dying, most in extreme poverty, with absolutely no historical reparation or justice.
During the Truth Commission investigation, which investigated human rights violations between 1984-2008, none of the gay, lesbian, trans, and/or bisexual collectives or groups presented a formal claim of human rights violations. Only two people offered their testimonies to the truth commission regarding their experiences as sexual minorities but there was no support or mobilization from civil society to accompany these individuals and their cases.
As the final report was inconclusive regarding this issue, the book Purita Pelayo proposed to write would recuperate this historical memory and offer an entry point to begin the process of systematizing the breadth and depth of the human rights violations.
After two years of intensive writing, Purita Pelayo published Los Fantasmas se Cabrearon under the name Alberto Cabral, in 2017 with the consistent support of INREDH. According to Cabral, “The administration under León Febres Cordero (1984-1998) and with Minister Luis Robles Plaza designed a state policy to persecute and repress the miniscule GLTBI insurgency and community in Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca and other cities” (102). The gay community began to develop a sense that the state’s underlying objective was to exterminate “undesirable people” (130). As homosexuality was criminalized until 1997, the police moved through the city protecting public morality and decency from homosexuals found committing improper and immoral acts. Besides routine extortions, detentions and executions, the police would torture them by forcing them into freezing lakes and raping them with their nightsticks. These abuses of torture, sexual violence and arbitrary and illegal deprivations of liberty are contained in the legal claim and constitute crimes against humanity with no statute of limitations.
In response to these ongoing abuses and with much struggle and difficulty in the 1990’s, a group of gay and travesti sex workers and activists established and consolidated the formation of Coccinelle in Quito. They held the first public protest march regarding their rights, built alliances with key advocates, and collected the signatures necessary to petition the constitutional tribunal to decriminalize homosexuality. When homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, this opened the door for many new middle and upper class LGBTI groups to emerge that focused on political empowerment and inclusion in political parties. Meanwhile, reactionary neo-nazi groups increased their threats and attacks on travesti and transsexual people practicing sex work and living in extreme poverty, succeeding in dismantling Coccinelle.
As Luis Ángel Saavedra underscores, the struggles and victories of Coccinelle were quickly forgotten in the 2000’s, as was the pending debt of justice for the human rights violations against gender and sexual minorities in the 1980’s and 1990’s. When the truth commission began its investigation in the late 2000’s, the organized political LGBTI groups had other political priorities and little to no historical memory, so no one “assumed the re-vindication of those killed.” Ana Almeida and Elizabeth Vásquez reinforce this analysis of a generational and class divide in their book Cuerpos Distintos (2010): after the decriminalization [of homosexuality] the gay groups lost interest in the defense of basic rights while trans people were still deeply impacted by labor and housing discrimination, as well as constant violent infringements upon their physical liberty and the right to move through public spaces (32).
Yet, Luis Ángel Saavedra overlooks one organization, PROYECTO TRVNSGÉNE3RO, that since 2002 has been working with trans sex workers through paralegal street activism by conforming itinerant legal patrols. These patrols seek to prevent arbitrary detention of trans sex workers, offer preventative legal counsel, mediate conflicts, and offer legal intervention in cases of arbitrary detention, police abuse, and discrimination in medical facilities (Cuerpos Distintos 2010, 19). In addition, this project has presented reforms to the penal code, has won the right to trans identity in the national identification card, and has introduced gender sensitive police protocol (Cuerpos Distintos 2010, 19). Although the path breaking work of PROYECTO TRVNSGÉNE3RO has successfully addressed many of Coccinelle’s historic concerns and demands, this initiative does not bridge the generational divide with the suvivors of Coccinelle.
In 2017 when Los Fantasmas se Cabrearon was published, it coincided with the 20th Anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality and new groups learned of the past atrocities and gained interest. Many LGBTI youth had never heard of this history. The recuperation of historical memory is one of various important outcomes of the publication of this book.
The legal claim currently filed with the Attorney General’s office and its related demand for collective reparations is also a result of the social impact of the book in that it “awakened the interest of new groups to join in the demand for reparations,” according to Luis Ángel Saavedra. Moreover, the process of researching and writing provided cathartic healing moments for Purita Pelayo and various other surviving ex-members of Coccinelle, as well as the recuperation of the Coccinelle archive of more than 200 photographs and videos.
The current demand for historical memory, collective reparations and justice for gays and travestis in Ecuador extirpates the harms of the 1980’s and 1990’s from the grasp of oblivion and impunity. Purita Pelayo’s book, with the support of INREDH, has been a critical source of illumination in this process. In the words of Purita Pelayo, “recuperating the historical memory of the gay and travesti mobilization…is to strengthen the present moment and continue with the fight that obliges us everyday to consolidate the social relations between discriminated social groups and a society attempting to construct frameworks for integral social inclusion” (195).