As far as murders go, the case involving Andrea Sanchez seemed to be fairly cut and dried. She was fatally beaten in her Calama apartment by a man who had just bought her sexual services for 2,000 pesos (less than US$4). After repeatedly smashing Sanchez’ head against a wall after the 32-year-old transvestite sex worker had fallen to the ground, the man who delivered the blows was arrested at the scene of the crime.
Víctor Vicencio Marín, the attacker, spent the next three days in jail but was then released – after paying approximately US$1,000 in bail. "Turns out it’s cheap to kill a faggot," he was quoted as telling reporters upon his release. At no time since the Nov. 12, 2004 attack has Vicencio ever denied what he did.
Despite the killer’s admitted guilt the case dragged on for nearly two-and-a-half years. Vicencio was able to hire a private lawyer. Ana Sanchez, the victim’s mother, was not.
Then, late last month, a Calama criminal court finally reached a decision. Vicencio, having managed to negotiate a plea bargain, will spend the next four years on probation. Unless he decides to commit another crime, the confessed murderer will not spend a single day in prison.
For Mrs. Sanchez, a resident of Santiago’s impoverished La Granja district, the suspended sentence is simply unacceptable.
"I didn’t want my son’s case to end up in impunity, because I’ve fought so hard," said Mrs. Sanchez.
Much of her efforts were spent trying to arrange for Andrea’s body to sent home, to Santiago – something she was unable to accomplish until just this past December.
"I hope the Chilean authorities put their hands on their hearts because unfortunately sir, the justice system in this country is… I just find it to be horribly bad," she said. "This is a life that was taken. How can it be that a rapist or a common criminal is condemned while someone who takes the life of another person ends up practically absolved?"
Also objecting to the ruling is the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Freedom (MOVILH), Chile’s leading sexual minorities’ advocacy organization. MOVILH President Rolando Jiménez, who over the past few years has worked closely with Sanchez in trying to bring attention to the case, described his reaction simply as "disappointment."
"We thought that with the recent legal reforms, these types of crimes – where in this particular case the attacker was arrested at the scene of the crime, he confessed – would be punished," said Jímenez. "We’re upset because we thought that the new penal system would change things, that it would improve access to justice, particularly for the most vulnerable groups. That hasn’t been the case."
Andrea Sanchez’ brutal murder, sadly, is hardly an isolated case in Chile. On March 16, exactly one week before the Calama criminal court closed the Sanchez case, a 54-year-old transgender prostitute named Michelle Carrasco – or "Chela," as her friends called her – was beaten to death in the outskirts of Santiago. Less than two weeks earlier another transgender person, Moira Donaire González, 30, was murdered in Viña del Mar, Region V. Two other transgender murders took place last year. Overall, according to MOVILH, 11 such crimes have taken place just since 2002.
"We’re just indignant. To put it simply, today in Chile the State is not guaranteeing a basic human right for a certain sector of the population, and that’s the right to life," said Jiménez.
"Ultimately, that right isn’t guaranteed because the transgender population, in this society, is forced to support itself in the sex trade. For the people in that line of work, it’s a context that is absolutely precarious and dangerous and in which they’re vulnerable."
Something else that ties these cases together is impunity, according to Jiménez, for whom Víctor Vicencio Marín’s four-year suspended sentence is simply a case in point.
"It’s just not right that in exchange for taking someone’s life, a guy gets three days in jail," the MOVILH president said.
Flipping through a photo album she rescued from among Andrea’s belongings, Mrs. Sanchez remembers her son with a mix of smiles and tears. He loved animals, she recalls. He loved to travel.
"This picture, I love this picture. This one you can scan," she said, showing me a snapshot of her son in full drag, posing on a bed, his hair done just so, makeup perfectly applied. "She looks beautiful in this one. She looks hot, hot, hot," she added, breaking into laughter.
In other photo Andrea (born Fernando Andrés) poses in a satiny gown in front of the Chilean flag. The picture was taken in 2000, in Arica, where Andrea had just won a "Miss Sympathy" pageant.
Mrs. Sanchez now plans to pursue the only legal recourse available to her – a civil suit. In order to accomplish that, however, she’ll need to contract a lawyer, something that for money reasons she wasn’t able to do in the past.
"After she died, I was in bad shape, also in economically bad shape, just horrible. Because before, she was everything for me, always very concerned about her mother, in all senses," said Mrs. Sanchez, who switches constantly between "he" and "she" when talking about her son.
"She saw how much I suffered raising him, educating him, so… He was so understanding, so human. That’s how I’ll always remember her. I dream about her sometimes. A mother doesn’t stop doing that, at least I haven’t. And I think about her all the time, as if she’s off traveling and is going to come home soon. Sometimes when my cell phone rings I think it’s her."
Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)