Gay and in a gang: Film tells story of a jailed hitman in El Salvador

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 4 June 2021 15:31 GMT

Salvadoran Geovany, a gay ex-hitman, lies next to his partner in the short documentary 'Unforgivable'. Credit: Neil Brandvold

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Award-wining short documentary gives a rare insight into the taboo of being gay in El Salvador's notorious gangs

* Film highlights taboo of being gay in Salvadoran 'maras'

* Award-winning documentary follows gay former hitman

* Macho culture seen behind homophobia in gangs and beyond

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, June 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Geovany, a former gang member from El Salvador, has two reasons to fear he will be killed in the jail where he is serving a long sentence for murder: He quit his gang and he is gay.

Geovany's days behind bars - his fears, stark confessions about killing, as well as moments of tenderness with his partner, another ex-gangster - are depicted in award-wining short documentary "Imperdonable" (Unforgivable).

The film gives a rare insight into the taboo of being gay in El Salvador's notorious gangs, where a pervasive macho culture means homosexuality is seen as a shameful affront worthy of violent retribution.

"Killing a person, yes it's bad but it's not that difficult. But loving another man, that's not natural," said Geovany, referring to the moral codes of gang culture, in the documentary - filmed over 12 days in 2019 at San Francisco Gotera prison.

"There were 11 of us who were part of a platoon of assassins. Our only task was to kill," said Geovany, who joined the Barrio 18 gang when he was 12.

Geovany and his partner, who he met in jail, tell how they asked to be transferred to a tiny isolation cell shared with nine other gay inmates - giving them some sense of freedom and safety away from the abuse of other inmates.

The film's Spanish director, Marlen Vinayo, who runs the production company La Jaula Abierta that made the film with local online news outlet El Faro, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she had not expected to find openly gay inmates in a prison where current and former gang members were held.

"It was surprising to find them alive, that they hadn't been killed already by gang members," said Vinayo, who lives in El Salvador and co-wrote and co-produced the documentary with Carlos Martinez, a local journalist at El Faro.

Salvadoran Geovany, a gay ex-hitman, lies next to his partner in the short documentary 'Unforgivable'. Credit: Neil Brandvold

ARMED VIOLENT GANGS

Across the small Central American nation of about 6 million people, entire neighborhoods are controlled by the country's two most powerful and rival street gangs, or "maras" - Barrio 18 and the MS-13.

There is no place for openly LGBT+ people in their ranks, said Vinayo.

"Gangs have an idea of what being a man should be, an idea of a macho man," she said. "Gang members I spoke to in jail will tell you that it brings shame on the entire gang."

One of the few ways gang members can leave a gang without fear of reprisals is by joining an evangelical church - a path followed by Geovany during his time in prison.

But Vinayo said that for gay former gangsters joining a church that rejects homosexuality and treats it as "a condition that can be erased and 'cured'" can deepen internal conflicts over their sexual orientation.

"Being a Christian and being gay created confusion in some of the people we spoke to in jail," Vinayo said. "Some, like Geovany, have accepted being gay, but his partner hadn't when we filmed."

The couple find little refuge in the influential evangelical church inside the overcrowded prison, where the documentary shows inmates singing and clapping in front of a pastor who condemns homosexuality.

"God compares the homosexual to a dog, to an animal," the pastor said in the film. "It's easier to flush the gang from your veins than to flush the homosexuality from your bowels."

But despite jail's hostile atmosphere, the film captures moments of intimacy between Geovany and his partner as they caress and kiss.

"Nobody enters a jail expecting to find love and tenderness," Vinayo said.

Outside the prison walls, El Salvador's LGBT+ community face rampant discrimination and violence, rights activists say.

About 600 LGBT+ people have been murdered in the country since 1993, according to advocacy group COMCAVIS Trans.

Vinayo said her documentary, which will be streamed pay-per-view on Vimeo on Demand from June 17, shone a spotlight on a society where gang violence is a daily occurrence but where same-sex marriage is not recognised by law.

"We're showing a portrait of a society with a broken moral compass ... where, as Geovany says, it is more natural to kill than to love another man," she said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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