This Is What Happened To The Missing Trans Women Of El Salvador

The story of how a group of trans women vanished in the midst of El Salvador's civil war has been passed down from generation to generation, creating a legend that gave them a place in the history of a country that often seems to wish they would disappear. BuzzFeed News' J. Lester Feder set out to document the mysterious incident for the first time.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 27, 2015, at 10:18 a.m. ET

SAN SALVADOR — La Cuki Alarcón was late to work on the night that his roommate disappeared, which is why he is still around to tell what happened.

His hair was extravagantly curled, and he matched a long skirt with high boots, a look he hoped hid his legs, which he thought looked too manly to appeal to his clients.

Alarcón was hurrying to the strip they used to work across the street from El Salvador’s national symbol, the Divine Savior of the World monument, a statue of Jesus with his feet planted on a globe perched atop a column about 60 feet in the air. Work was so steady on that corner that Alarcón thought a client might have already picked up his roommate and the other locas they hung out with. Outsiders called them all “homosexuals,” but the sex workers — some who lived as women all the time, others who dressed as women primarily on the job — called each other “crazies” even though some used it as an insult that would roughly translate to “sissy.” (Alarcón asked BuzzFeed News to refer to him using male pronouns.)

As Alarcón reached the opposite corner, he could see his friends were still there. He hesitated for a minute before crossing because the stoplight was out, and that’s when he realized the locas were not alone. Four tall men in ski masks were throwing them into the back of a green truck, clubbing them with the butts of their guns.

Alarcón remembers the year as 1980, a time when death squads were using trucks like this one to make people disappear by the hundreds every week. This was the beginning of the civil war that consumed El Salvador until 1992. The United Nations, NGOs, journalists, and scholars have sought to uncover what happened to many of the more than 75,000 who were killed or disappeared during the conflict, but no one has ever investigated what happened to Alarcón’s friends. As far as anyone knows, no one has even recorded their names among the missing.

But Alarcón can still rattle off the names of many of the dozen he remembers being thrown into the truck that night. There was his roommate Cristi, whom he remembers as a gentle 26-year-old who would bring him gifts of coats or shoes from trips she’d frequently make to Guatemala and Mexico. Another was Verónica, from San Bartolo near the Honduran border, who was so pretty that her clients would sometimes insist on having their pictures taken with her. Carolina was so well put together that she’d sometimes get into trouble — she looked “all woman,” Alarcón said, and her clients could get violent when they discovered she was trans as she undressed.

Alarcón is one of the only witnesses to their disappearances who is still alive, but the story of that night is well-remembered. It has been passed down from generation to generation of trans sex workers in the country’s capital, San Salvador. It’s been retold so many times it can sometimes be hard to separate fact from legend, passed down in the same way many families retell the haunting mysteries that still linger from the war. The tale stakes a claim for trans women in a country that often seems to wish they would disappear.

“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right?” Alarcón said during an interview in San Salvador last December. “Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”

I first learned about this story from a 38-year-old Salvadoran trans activist named Karla Avelar in the fall of 2014 while working on a story about LGBT kids fleeing the country to make the dangerous, illegal trip to the United States. El Salvador has some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the hemisphere, and Avelar recounted waves of unpunished murders over the past several decades. In 2014 alone, at least 12 women and two gay men were killed, according to media reports. There was the “Bloody June” of 2009 in which at least three trans women and two gay men were murdered. Avelar herself survived being shot in the 1990s by a serial killer who had been gunning down trans sex workers.

The ones taken from the Savior of the World were almost mythical to Avelar, who was a baby when the events occurred.

“We don’t even really know much ourselves, but a little while ago one of the survivors told us what happened and said to us, ‘Why don’t you document this, that I was a victim of that attack?’” she said. But the task seemed impossible. “There is no documentation whatsoever, no publication nor record — there is nothing.”

Avelar knew of just one witness who still survived, a woman named Paty who she said was 78 years old, a miracle in a country where violence and HIV are so widespread very few trans women survive to middle age.

“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war”

I flew to El Salvador as soon as I could. Paty’s health sounded fragile and if she died before her memories could be recorded, any hope of documenting the atrocity would die with her. I decided to work with Nicola Chávez Courtright, co-founder of a small organization documenting the history of El Salvador’s LGBT movement called AMATE, hoping she would have ideas on how to start substantiating Paty’s memories.

When we visited Paty — whose full name is Patricia Leiva — shortly before Christmas last year, we learned that much of what Avelar told me was wrong. Leiva was only 60, though it was understandable why Avelar had thought she was much older. Health problems had swollen her stomach like a basketball and made it nearly impossible for her to walk. She also had not been there on the night of the disappearances from the Savior of the World, and years of heavy drinking meant she could only recall bits and pieces of the story, despite having heard it countless times.

Leiva lives in the remains of what used to be a popular beer hall called the Bluegill in a once-thriving red-light district called the Praviana, now subdivided into tenements. The bar had belonged to La Cuki Alarcón, Leiva told us, and he had been there that night.

Alarcón is now retired and lives in the suburbs, surviving with help from his children who live in the United States. Alarcón doesn’t routinely go by “La Cuki” (a Spanish spelling of Cookie) anymore, preferring his male name. But he asked that we not publish his legal first name because he was worried about his safety for talking about the war. Besides, he said, “La Cuki” had been “my nomme de guerre — my homosexual one.”

Alarcón hid from the men rounding up his friends that night by throwing himself to the ground in a small garden. He tried to slink away after watching the men pile his friends into the truck, but more armed men were patrolling the surrounding streets. He remembered making it to the La Religiosa funeral home up the block, where he tried to take sanctuary, but he said the guard wouldn’t let him in because there was a lavish wake underway — “There are only famous people in there,” the guard told him. So he waited out the raid crouched between the cars parked outside.

When the coast was clear, he went back to work on the corner. Within minutes, a client had come and picked him up. Alarcón figured he’d see Cristi in a day or two, which is how long the cops usually held sex workers after a routine vice raid.

But Cristi never came home. None of them did.

Alarcón went to the police stations to try to find her. He even hired a lawyer. But the cops made fun of him and hinted that his friends were already dead.

“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war,” he remembered.

“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right? Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war had its roots in political battles that had been going on for half a century. In 1980 it blew up into one of the last and bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War. That year, military leaders ousted moderates in the ruling junta while paramilitary squads aligned with the regime hunted down government critics. The war vaulted into international headlines in March, when the head of the country’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Óscar Romero, was shot through a church doorway while he was celebrating mass.

The U.S. government threw tremendous weight behind the military leaders even as the body count grew, and a rebel force called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front fought back with a little support from Nicaragua and Cuba. Echoing the early days of Vietnam, Washington sent in military advisers, contributed tens of millions of dollars in military aid, and trained Salvadoran troops at an installation in Panama known as the School of the Americas. The U.S. continued this support even after reporters for the Washington Post and New York Times uncovered that a U.S.-trained battalion was responsible for one of the war’s most infamous atrocities, the extermination of an entire farming village called El Mozote in 1981.

The two sides were locked in a stalemate as the Cold War came to an end with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Peace accords signed on Jan. 16, 1992, made uncovering the crimes committed during the war a cornerstone of rebuilding the nation, creating a Truth Commission run by the United Nations to gather witness statements and write a definitive account of the war’s greatest atrocities.

Because many of the war’s abuses were so extensively documented in that process, we thought we might find some record of the disappearances from the Savior of the World. But we came up empty. Our best hope was the archives of the two human rights offices run by San Salvador’s Catholic Archdiocese — the most active human rights monitors during the war — but they could locate no records matching the case. They might have been able to search more if we could provide the victims’ legal names, but Alarcón and the others we spoke with only knew them by their female names.

We had hoped that El Salvador’s oldest gay rights organization, Entre Amigos, would be able to help us substantiate these memories. When it organized the country’s first pride march in 1997, the group declared it as a commemoration of another event said to have happened during the war years: the abduction of a number of trans women from the heart of the Praviana red-light district by a U.S.-trained battalion in June 1984. This is the one case of crimes against LGBT people claimed to have been recorded by human rights monitors during the war.

Entre Amigos’ co-founder William Hernández told us in an interview that he had uncovered a statement from a witness to that incident while working in the archive of an organization called the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission just after the war's end. But, Hernández said, the account was so confusing and incomplete that, when examined “from a legal point of view, it wouldn’t give me anything that argues that this was real.”

He initially said that he would be glad to dig it out of the group’s files for us anyway, but he grew increasingly combative when we attempted to follow up. Finally, he sent us a note saying his lawyers did not “trust how the information will be managed” and requested that we remove reference to Entre Amigos from this story.

So we went directly to the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, and they told us they could not locate any such testimony in its archives. None of the people we interviewed said they’d witnessed an abduction as described by Entre Amigos or knew of anyone who had. If the testimony existed and it was as mixed up as Hernández described, there’s the possibility that the person was describing the disappearances from the Savior of the World and some of the details got scrambled in the retelling, including the year.

And we could never pin down the date of the disappearances for sure. It’s not uncommon for people to have difficulty remembering dates from the war years — even when loved ones died, the violence was so unrelenting that the number on a calendar seemed like a fairly meaningless abstraction in daily life, other reporters who covered the conflict told us. Calendar dates might even be especially hard for the trans women we interviewed, most of whom didn’t finish elementary school because they were thrown out by their families once their femininity became apparent.

The witnesses we interviewed mostly gave dates ranging from 1978 to 1980, but the fall of 1980 seems likeliest. One person who lived in the Praviana at the time told us she remembered they were still searching for the missing when one of the most notorious killings of the war took place: the rape and murder of three American nuns and a laywoman by the National Guard on Dec. 2, 1980.

This timing may be confirmed by something we found while paging through three years of newspapers from the period, held in dusty binders in the collection of San Salvador’s Museum of Anthropology. The only announcement for an event at the La Religiosa funeral home we found was published by both major dailies, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica, on Oct. 1, 1980. It was for a man who had died in Los Angeles, California, whose remains had been shipped home for burial, suggesting he may have been from a wealthy or important family. Alarcón remembers the wake where he tried to hide from the raid as being especially fancy, so there’s a possibility this was it.

That’s not a lot to go on, but two days later, El Diario de Hoy reported that police were leading sweeps to “purge those elements that are undesirable to society” in response to recent thefts. The operation was reportedly focusing on a park about two miles away from the Savior of the World — though close to the Praviana — but the next day La Prensa Gráfica quoted police saying the effort was expanding to target “other sites known as refuges for criminals.”

It may be hard to imagine a dozen people could disappear without attracting some attention. But at that point in the war, unexplained deaths had become so routine that it was remarkable when anyone raised a fuss. (And these were sex workers — trans ones at that — the kind of people whom many would probably have been happy to see cleared off the streets if they noticed them at all.)

Bodies were being dumped at a rate of more than 150 a week, which the U.S. Embassy would tally in regular “Violence Week in Review” cables, even as the U.S grew closer with the El Salvadoran regime. Remains were found scattered around the capital every morning, sometimes with their faces destroyed so they could not be identified or left in a spot where vultures could be counted on to scatter their bones. Trucks like the ones Alarcón saw at the Savior of the World were icons of the inescapable violence.

The death squads’ victims were “killed in the usual fashion,” reported a cable from the U.S. Embassy to Washington of the 179 people who died in the week ending Nov. 28, 1980: “Kidnapped by a group of armed men who appeared as civilians, taken away in the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, shot or strangled or both, and then dumped along roadsides.” Six of that week’s murders included top opposition leaders that attracted some outcry, the cable noted, but their deaths were “unusual in that they have gone noticed.”

If news of the death of a group of sex workers had reached officials at the U.S. embassy or human rights organizations, it could have easily been ignored as an extreme vice raid rather than as a political crime.

But those who lost their friends believe they died because of politics. The most intriguing part of the legend of the disappearances from the Savior of the World — and the part that is probably the most impossible to pin down — is that they were killed to cover up a government secret.

They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.

Some of the locas thought the American was a diplomat, while others believed he was a reporter. No one really knew why he was in the country, but they all knew what he looked like. The ones we spoke to who had seen him recalled that he appeared to be in his fifties with close-cropped white hair and a mustache or a goatee. He was a big spender who always hired two at a time — “one for him to make love to while the other made love to him,” one person told us.

They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.

The two he picked up shortly before the raid stole his briefcase. Inside were some cameras that the locas believed had been used to photograph some kind of a government crime.

All this might be easily shrugged off as the kind of conspiracy theory that proliferates in wartime, except several sources said they’d heard it from people directly involved. La Cuki Alarcón said the American came to his bar offering a reward to get his cameras back. Another sex worker, who asked not to be named, said she’d been warned that a hunt for the thieves was underway by a sergeant in the National Guard who was her regular client. Several told us that one of the thieves had a wife, a cisgender woman named Sonia who lived in San Salvador for at least another 30 years and would sometimes talk about how the authorities eventually dug the briefcase out of her patio with the cameras still inside.

Everyone believes both thieves escaped, but there are a lot of different stories about what happened to the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World: They were tortured by having their fingernails pulled out and their breasts shorn off. They were dragged to death by horses at the infantry barracks. They were dumped in a hole on the road to the notorious Mariona prison.

Their families tried to find them. A woman named Yazmín Zulema Enríquez, whose mother did laundry in a Praviana brothel, told us how relatives of the missing would come for help with their search. She remembered being left in charge of the brothel when the owner would personally make the rounds of the offices of the National Guard, the Treasury Police, and the National Police. The men said to have taken the locas away wore no uniforms, so there was no way to be sure which force had taken them.

“We didn’t even hear of any of [the locas] being held prisoner,” Zulema told us. “Of all the ones they carried off, not even cadavers were found.”

El Salvador is filled with stories like these, people turned into ghosts because unanswered questions are all that remains of them. A monument to the dead and disappeared that was unveiled in San Salvador in 2003 now bears the names of around 30,000 dead or disappeared who have been documented. Another 45,000 are estimated to be missing from that wall, a number that includes the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World.

Unexplained death became even more common for the trans women of San Salvador after the war. They were victims of the gangs that took over San Salvador’s streets, or targeted in drive-by shootings, or killed by HIV. By the turn of the century, the Praviana — which the sex workers say was home to dozens of trans women around the time of the war’s end — had essentially ceased to exist.

All that’s left is what remains of the Bluegill, with Patricia Leiva living in its carcass. Her home is a small room with a beat-up pallet on a concrete floor for which she pays $3 per day. She survives primarily by selling a few Coca-Colas and packs of gum from her door. She also still turns the occasional trick, though she can only walk a block or so on a good day.

She lives about a mile from the Monument to Memory and Truth, and her rusty shack is the closest thing to a memorial for the friends who passed through it. If it is too late to find out who killed the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World, they at least want their memories to be believed.

Leiva showed us her ID card when we asked if it was safe to publish her name for this story.

“Use my name!” she demanded. “This is serious what we’ve talked about. And we’ve told the truth.”

UPDATE

January 4, 2016, at 11:39 a.m.

This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the document that Entre Amigos claims to possess.

Meet The Trans Sex Worker Who Transformed A Gang-Controlled Prison

Karla Avelar survived a serial killer, gang attacks, and four years in a Salvadoran prison to become a trans activist on the global stage. J. Lester Feder and Nicola Chávez Courtright report from El Salvador.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 8, 2015, at 10:52 a.m. ET

SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — Karla Avelar had a backache when she reached the Sensuntepeque Penal Center, a cluster of cinderblock buildings perched on the side of a lush green valley near El Salvador's border with Honduras. So, after lunch, she took off her shirt and lay facedown on the cement floor of a room that doubles as activity space and cafeteria. Five women in bright makeup gave her a head-to-toe massage. They used hand cream as massage oil and placed a small candle over the knot in her back to draw out the pain.

Avelar was so at ease inside the prison that it is hard to imagine that she was regularly raped and tortured while she was incarcerated there between 1996 and 2000. Avelar, now 37 years old, was one of the many trans sex workers from San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, who has done time there over the past several decades. The ones who passed through there around the same time as Avelar report being abused by guards and pressed into a kind of slavery by the gangs who controlled the prison.

Those days are over, thanks in part to a legal complaint Avelar herself filed after her release. The women who rubbed her back on her recent visit, just before Christmas, are among the roughly 50 inmates who live in Sector 2, a special unit that houses trans women along with a handful of gay men. They still interact with the other prisoners in some common areas — several of them have boyfriends in the men's unit, and the prison supplies them with condoms — but they live and sleep in a part of the prison that is walled off from the men's unit for their safety.

"Today there is no rape," said one 25-year-old inmate who gave her name as Kendra. Kendra said she was subject to some verbal abuse when she first arrived in 2010 — a guard forced her to kneel for two hours while hurling homophobic insults at her — but Avelar came to see her and helped put a stop to it. The sealing of Sector 2 in that same year coincided with a decision by the prison administration to move the gang members out of the prison, which also went a long way to improving the trans and gay inmates' situation.

Many of them have stories much like Avelar's: Thrown out of home at an early age, they got by as sex workers, and survived rape or run-ins with gangs before landing in Sensuntepeque. They look to Avelar as a cross between a godmother and an advocate, able to win concessions from the prison administration that they could never get on their own. During the December visit, Avelar delivered a petition from the residents of Sector 2 to the warden asking that they be allowed to join the women's unit for a Christmas pageant. He agreed to it in writing on the spot.

"They're a little afraid of me because I've gotten them to remove certain guards," she told BuzzFeed News during the three-hour drive to the prison from San Salvador. "So with me, [the guards] are all like, 'Hello, Niña Karlita,'" greeting her with an affectionate nickname.

In a country where HIV and violence claims so many trans women's lives that there are few trans women in San Salvador over the age of 35, it's remarkable that Avelar is even still alive. She was raped and threatened with murder for the first time when she was 10, has survived at least three murder attempts as an adult, and has lived with HIV that went untreated for more than 13 years. Since 2008, she has run the trans rights organization she founded in San Salvador, known by the acronym COMCAVIS Trans. She regularly travels around the world to make the case for trans rights before international human rights bodies.

Avelar is part of a generation of trans activists in El Salvador, most of whom never finished primary school. They have won some substantial victories — including a directive issued by the government in 2010 prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in government jobs — even though human rights advocates consider El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for LGBT people. Based on media reports, COMCAVIS has documented at least twelve women and two gay men were killed in 2014, a figure they believe understates the actual number of murders.

"In terms of Karla's transformation, I can say, 'Wow, when I'm all grown up I want to be just like her' — only that she's younger than me," said William Hernández, who founded El Salvador's first LGBT rights organization in 1994, Entre Amigos (which translates to "Among Friends").

"We met her on the streets," Hernandez said. "We knew the comings and goings of all of the things she lived through." Now, he marvels at seeing her in meetings seated next to ambassadors and cabinet ministers. "And she's not just sitting there — she's actually expressing herself, making decisions and laying the cards on the table."

Avelar was born in Chalatenango, a rural district just to the northwest of the one that houses the Sensuntepeque prison. She left home when she was 10 years old, after the second time her cousin raped her in their family house. Another cousin used to shoot at her from time to time — and finally told her to get out.

"My cousin warned me that if I didn't leave home he'd kill me, because in his family there were only machos," Avelar said. She was dressing as a boy at the time, she said, but "I wasn't fooling anybody. ... In my town, in my neighborhood, everybody stopped calling me 'Carlos'; they called me 'Karla' instead. Or 'the faggot.'"

She left without enough money for bus fare, so she started walking toward San Salvador. She walked for a day and a half before reaching Apopa, a town just outside the capital, arriving at around 11 p.m. A man took pity on her and paid for her to take a bus the rest of the way. She spent the next six months sleeping in the San Salvador bus station or on the street, feeding herself from the trash.

She eventually saved up a little money from begging and bought a case of Coca-Cola, and began a business selling soda in one of the city's largest markets. There she met a woman named María who took her in but made her work a grueling schedule of domestic chores.

The woman's son also raped her, Avelar said, "but I stayed there because I didn't know what else to do."

One of her most dangerous chores was buying tortillas. María's house was in a neighborhood controlled by the 18th Street gang, but the tortillería was in territory of the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS). On one of these tortilla runs, a group of MS members grabbed her and took her to a place where she said about 15 men raped her. There were more waiting their turn, but she found the courage to make a break for it.

She returned to homelessness shortly after. That's where she first met another trans woman, named Diana, who invited Avelar to come along with her when she worked the streets. Avelar discovered that sex work finally gave her a way to earn money on her own and a little bit of control over her life.

"I was young [and] I made money," she said.

Avelar stayed friends with Diana until about eight years ago, when Diana was killed by her partner, a police officer. They had no real name for what they were at the time they first met. Most of the trans women in San Salvador were lumped into the category of "homosexuals" or they called themselves "locas," which literally means "crazy women" but often is used to mean something similar to "fag."

"At that time, we didn't even know that we were 'trans' or that we were the subjects of rights or anything," Avelar said.

Many of the trans sex workers who were already working in San Salvador when Avelar entered the business in 1990 remember those years as the tail end of a golden age. A civil war raged in El Salvador from the early 1980s until 1992, but the capital itself was comparatively peaceful and home to a thriving red-light district where gay men were relatively open and trans sex workers enjoyed steady business from the soldiers and police. There were a few strips where they worked, but the center of activity was a four-block area known as the Praviana. The women who spent time there in the '80s and early '90s estimate that in an area of about four blocks, anywhere from 70 to 90 trans women lived, most of them sex workers in the neighborhood's hotels.

Avelar was too intimidated by the other trans women to work in the heart of the Praviana. The veterans didn't exactly welcome her with open arms — they bullied her ruthlessly, calling her "la machorra" ("the dyke") because she wore short hair.

The "trans women who had been there a long time … would walk up and steal my money — sometimes they would even leave me naked," Avelar said. Once, a woman waved a machete in her face and told her she "had a pretty face for slicing up into little pieces."

Avelar eventually learned to fight back, and she began dishing out the same kind of abuse to the women who had treated her so badly. But this was as the Praviana began to decline in the 1990s. Many of the women left for the United States, following a well-worn path that many Salvadorans took in the dangerous and unstable period as organized gangs tightened control of the country following the civil war.

And then there was the "Matalocas" — the "Trannykiller." A serial killer started attacking trans women on the street in a series of drive-by shootings. He was said to have a wooden leg.

A man matching his description nearly killed Avelar in 1992. One night, Avelar said, she got into the car of a john who drove her to a secluded part of town after agreeing on a price. Her heart stopped when she went to go down on him and discovered he had an artificial leg.

"I touched his peg leg and I got scared," Avelar remembered. "I said to myself, 'He's already killed me.'"

She tried to act calm and finished the blow job, but he had noticed her panic. He pulled her off his penis, smacked her across the head with the butt of a pistol, and then made her get out of the car. That's when "penetration occurred" she said, and then he forced her back into the car and promised to kill her if she tried to escape.

The LGBT Kids Who Flee Their Countries — And Their Families — For The U.S.

Some of the thousands of Central American children trying to get to the United States are seeking a love and acceptance they can't get at home.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 11, 2014, at 11:44 a.m. ET

MEXICO CITY — Jefferson's face was covered in fake blood as he talked about leaving El Salvador for the United States after gangs beat him up for wearing women's clothes.

The 17-year-old was wearing a cadaver costume to go trick-or-treating with a group of teenagers on the south side of Mexico City, where U.S.-style Halloween mixes with Mexico's Día de los Muertos. He had also helped build an altar of offerings of food and flowers for the dead spirits believed to visit the living in the first days of November. More than 100 kids also staying in the shelter where he has lived for the past year and a half did the same. Jefferson wore a bright smile under his makeup, running between groups of friends in the auditorium as the offerings were judged.

The shelter was the most stable home the teen — who chose the pseudonym Jefferson to keep his real name private — had known. His mother kicked him out of their home in rural El Salvador when he was 11 because he had started wearing women's clothes. "She realized this is how I was and she beat me, saying, 'I'd rather have a crazy person in my house than a gay one,'" Jefferson said. Jefferson survived as a prostitute on the streets of the capital San Salvador for three months, until his mother got sick with an illness that paralyzed her face and forced him to return home to support her. As her situation deteriorated, his cross-dressing caught the attention of some of the gang members in his neighborhood. Gangs have grown into large organized crime syndicates in Central America over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to the U.S. policy of deporting immigrants who had been part of gangs like MS13 in Los Angeles. The gang members told him they didn't like seeing people like him "contaminating the neighborhood," beat him up, and pressured him into working for them, though he didn't say what work he did.

On Feb. 19, 2012, gang members beat him up yet again. The same night, his mother took herself to the hospital. That's when he decided to head to the United States.

"I decided it was better to get out," he said.

Jefferson decided to make the trip north around the same time more and more kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were doing the same, sometimes at their parents' urging. These three countries alone make up 93% of the more than 60,000 children who attempted to enter the United States on their own in 2014. The explosion in the number of unaccompanied child migrants — rapidly rising from fewer than 20,000 in 2011 — has largely been driven by gang violence, political instability, and extreme poverty within their borders.

Human rights activists say these countries also have some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the Americas — especially targeting trans women — although comprehensive hate crime statistics are not readily available. The Salvadoran trans advocacy organization COMCAVIS has documented 14 murders of LGBT people this year; 12 were trans women and two were gay men. One survey of trans women in El Salvador found that 87% knew at least one trans woman who had been murdered, and not a single case in which the killers had been arrested.

LGBT kids head north in search of the same stability and security as other migrant children. But they also seek a kind of love and acceptance that seems unimaginable at home.

Jefferson remembered telling his mother as he left, "I am sick of my family. I want a better family."

Jefferson began walking toward Guatemala that night in February 2012 with almost no money in his pockets, "maybe 10 cents." He was vague about what happened before he reached Guatemala, but it took almost a year before he made it out of El Salvador. He said he walked and hitchhiked. Sometimes the truck drivers who gave him rides would also feed him, but he mostly slept on the street.

He had some luck when he entered Guatemala and found someone to take him all the way to the Mexican border in just one day. He slipped into Chiapas and stayed in a shelter for migrants while begging on the street to raise enough money to pay for a seat on the minibuses that transport migrants north to the U.S. He eventually made it on one — but the bus was promptly stopped by immigration police. They told Jefferson they were going to send him back to El Salvador.

Jefferson said he told the officers, "I can't go back to my country because I … faced death threats. ... After what I've done, they're not going to forgive me."

Jefferson had a strong claim against deportation: Both the U.S. and Mexico clearly recognize LGBT people as part of a social group that have grounds for political asylum, unlike people who are fleeing poverty or gang violence. Instead of being sent home, Jefferson's case was referred to the Mexican agency that grants humanitarian visas, known as COMAR, and he was taken to a detention facility in the city of Palenque to wait for their decision.

Advocates say most LGBT migrants don't petition for asylum in Mexico, largely because it doesn't promise the same work opportunities as the U.S., and Mexico also has high rates of anti-LGBT violence. (Advocates who work with LGBT people seeking asylum in the U.S. say that Mexico is among the most common countries their clients are fleeing.) But others simply don't know they have the right to petition or fail to navigate complicated legal processes that even many adults don't understand. Even in the U.S., where there are many programs to connect unaccompanied minors with immigration lawyers, only a relatively small number of asylum cases are filed — less than 3 percent of the children estimated to have entered the U.S. in the past year have petitioned for asylum, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.

And law enforcement can pose special dangers for LGBT migrants. One 16-year-old trans girl from El Salvador who was deported earlier this year after being caught by Mexico City police reported to the El Salvadoran trans rights group COMCAVIS that she was gang raped by officers while in detention. Jefferson also said he was raped during his nearly three months in detention.

Though he was only 15, Jefferson was placed in a facility with adult men and says he was told there were no separate facilities for children. He says there were no guards inside the facility who could protect him; only the perimeter of the facility was guarded. So when he started being harassed, there was no one he could turn to.

"There were two," he said. "One closed the door, and the other…"

He said he tried to tell those in charge what was happening, but "they didn't do anything" except arrange for him to see a doctor and a psychologist and tried to broker a dialogue between him and his attacker. "They told me that he wanted to talk to me, but I didn't want to do it," he said.

Jefferson's story has a mostly happy ending — at least temporarily.

He was ultimately granted the right to stay in Mexico. After nearly three months, COMAR granted him a visa and he was taken to the airport. Those in charge wouldn't tell him where he was going — a technique to ensure that the men who had assaulted him inside the detention center would not be able to find him, he was later told. The flight to Mexico City was the first time he'd been on an airplane. The flight, he said, was "bone-chilling."

They took him to the shelter where he now lives, which houses both Mexican and migrant children who have no homes. It is affiliated with the global organization Covenant House International, but its management has asked that BuzzFeed News not publish its name for Jefferson's security.

Five boys he had met in the detention center were already living at the shelter, and being reunited with them was like coming home — but to a family that actually loved him. "I felt, like, even better than I did with my family, because my family never gave me even a hug or a toy," Jefferson said. Since the group of boys were reunited at the shelter, "we love each other as if we are brothers."

Life isn't perfect there — he has to wear boy's clothes and keep his hair short. A spokeswoman for the shelter said this was for his own safety because "unfortunately Mexican society faces some scenarios which are not LGBT-friendly."

But Jefferson said this "isn't a problem," especially since he's only a year away from being 18, when he will be able to live as he choses. He's been out to the other kids since the day he arrived and never had any problems, he said, and there is at least one other LGBT teen who lives there. Jefferson is finishing high school and studying how to cook, make clothes, and do makeup.

"Overall, I'm doing very well," he said.

When Jefferson becomes an adult in the eyes of the law, he plans to pick up where he left off and finish his journey to the U.S., even though he has a permit to stay in Mexico. If he makes it, he risks being put into a U.S. detention center, where harassment and violence targeting LGBT people has been such a serious problem that a civil rights group filed a mass civil rights complaint against the Department of Homeland Security in 2011. In addition to proving why he can't return to El Salvador, he'll also have to make a case for why he cannot stay in Mexico, because once a refugee is given safe harbor by another country, they're ineligible for asylum in the United States. And while there are many programs to get legal services to child immigrants, adults are not so lucky — they have to find a lawyer on their own, and there's no guarantee of legal representation for people facing deportation the way there is for defendants facing criminal charges.

Jefferson said too much of Mexico is just as dangerous as El Salvador. He also worries that he won't be able to earn enough money there. Despite his harsh words to his mother when he left, he says part of his reason for leaving is that he didn't want her to worry about his problems with the gangs as she struggled with her health. He's hoping that in the U.S., his diploma from the sewing school will let him find "better work [to pay for a] cure for my mother's disease."

But this time, he said, he would be determined to make the trip different than the one that brought him to Mexico City.

"I don't want to go back to what I came from, traveling in a trailer, hitchhiking," he said. "I endured hunger, cold, punches, humiliation from people. I've had enough of traveling by land."

He plans to fly.

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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