LGBT migrants flee violence, poverty in Central America

By : MICHAEL K. LAVERS of the Washington Blade, courtesy of the National Gay Media Association
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(AboveFrancela Méndez was a member of Colectivo Alejandría who was killed at a friend’s home in 2015. The transgender rights organization has hung this tribute to her at its offices in San Salvador, El Salvador. Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers.)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The offices of Colectivo Alejandría, a transgender advocacy group, are located in a house in the Magaña neighborhood of the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador that is surrounded by a thick wall with barbed wire on the top of it. A heavy metal gate with a narrow slit through which a person can look outside spans the driveway, while bars cover the house’s windows.

Colectivo Alejandría Director Karla Guevara told the Washington Blade on Feb. 6 during an interview with two of her colleagues that an average of 20 people are killed in El Salvador every day. Francela Méndez, a prominent activist who was a Colectivo Alejandría board member, is among the more than a dozen trans women who were known to have been killed in the Central American country in 2015.

Three trans women have been murdered in San Luis Talpa, a municipality near El Salvador International Airport that is roughly 25 miles southeast of San Salvador, since Feb. 18. Guevara told the Blade this violence is among the reasons that LGBT Salvadorans leave the country.

“There are some heroines, some survivors in this country who are able to make it in this exclusionary society,” she said. “This society . . . is totally full of hate.”

Violence that is associated with maras and pandillas (gangs) and drug trafficking has made El Salvador and neighboring Honduras two of the most violent countries in the world. Central America is among the regions from which the majority of Immigration Equality’s clients originate.


Verónica López of Asociación Salvadoreña de Mujeres Travestis y Transgénero (ASTRANS) listens as her colleagues speak with the Washington Blade at her office in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Feb. 4, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America’s Northern Triangle, which also includes Guatemala, who entered the U.S. in 2014 underscored the plight of many migrants who have decided to flee their countries.

Verónica López of Asociación Salvadoreña de Mujeres Trans, a San Salvador-based trans advocacy group, described the situation to the Blade during an interview at her office on Feb. 4 as “forced migration because of tremendous insecurity.”

“If you are a person from the LGBTI community, you are more at risk than a cisgender or heterosexual person,” she said.

Other activists with whom the Blade spoke in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala agreed.

“The entire population of El Salvador is looking to migrate because of the same reason: Violence,” Billy Rivera of the San Salvador-based Generación de Hombres Trans de El Salvador, a group that advocates on behalf of trans men in El Salvador, told the Blade during an interview at his office with three of his colleagues on Feb. 6. “The trans male population is also looking to make this type of exit.”

Rivera and other activists note poverty and a lack of education and economic opportunities make trans women and men particularly vulnerable to violence from gang members, police officers, soldiers and the general public. They say these underlying factors also prompt LGBT people to migrate from their respective countries

“When you don’t have education; when you don’t have work; when you don’t have dreams; when you don’t have goals; you are going to be living day-to-day,” said Stacy Velásquez of Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche, a Guatemala City-based group that advocates on behalf of trans sex workers. “This is what happens to our counterparts from Honduras and El Salvador who come to Guatemala.”

“They are fleeing violence,” she added.

Cattrachas, a human rights organization that is based in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, notes 249 LGBT people have been reported killed in the country between 2009-2016.

René Martínez, a prominent activist in the city of San Pedro Sula who was a member of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s ruling National Party, was strangled to death in June 2016. Paola Barraza, Erick Martínez Ávila and Walter Tróchez — who were also LGBT and human rights advocates — have also been killed since 2009.

A coup toppled then-President Manuel Zelaya that year.

Activists with whom the Blade spoke in San Pedro Sula, which is one of the most violent cities in the world that is not in a war zone, said police officers frequently extort money from LGBT sex workers in order to allow them to work.

Velásquez told the Blade the “people” who offer to help LGBT migrants force them into prostitution and then charges them “rent” to work on a street corner or from a house. She also noted gangs in El Salvador target LGBT people in neighborhoods they control.

Velásquez highlighted the case of a trans woman who fled to Guatemala after a gang member tried to kill her. She told the Blade she had a large scar on her neck from where he tried to slit her throat.

“They don’t want any faggots, any queers,” said Velásquez.

Andrea Ayala, executive director of Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad, a San Salvador-based LGBT advocacy group, noted gangs also target children. She told the Blade during an interview at her office on Feb. 6 that these threats factored into the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America into the U.S. in 2014.

“If you don’t give your children to the gang they kill you and they kill your children,” said Ayala. “In a desperate way the people prefer to have a 50-50 chance that you survive the desert in Mexico and maybe they get into the U.S.”

“If you stay in a very poor community in El Salvador, you’re going to be dead tomorrow,” she added.


Stacy Velásquez of Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche, a trans advocacy group in Guatemala, at a Guatemala City hotel on Feb. 1, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

U.S. provides ‘chance to be someone’

Many of the LGBT migrants who leave Central America — often with the help of coyotes (smugglers) who charge up to $10,000 and often force them into prostitution or human trafficking rings — remain in Mexico. Others hope to migrate to the U.S.

“For someone in the community to say I am going to go to the United States and not return to this country is common,” Freddy Funez, an LGBT activist in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, told the Blade on Feb. 10 during an interview at his office.

Ayala echoed Funez.

“You have the sense that in the U.S. you can be whoever you want to be and if you work hard you will get something back,” said Ayala. “You will get a chance to be someone.”


The cathedral in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Trump has sparked ‘a lot of concern’

The Blade traveled to Central America less than a week after President Trump signed an executive order that spurs construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposed wall and the administration’s pledge to deport undocumented immigrants from the U.S. has sparked widespread concern in the region.

“We all feel like we are all Mexico,” said Ayala.

Javier Cifuentes, an intern at the Human Rights Campaign who is from Guatemala, was a child when he arrived in the U.S. with his mother and brother in 2002. He is now a U.S. citizen, but he told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview that “anxieties have increased” among his family and others in Guatemala with whom he speaks.

“The primary concern is what’s going to happen to the immigrants that are coming in and the children and the LGBT people who are being persecuted,” said Cifuentes.

Éver Guillén, an LGBT activist in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, noted to the Blade during a Feb. 9 interview that President Obama deported more undocumented immigrants than any other administration. Guillén nevertheless said Trump has sparked “a lot of concern” among many LGBT Hondurans.

“This situation now with Donald Trump in which we are living is a concern,” Guevara told the Blade in the Salvadoran capital.

Other activists maintain the wall will do little to deter migrants from entering the U.S. They also told the Blade it will put LGBT migrants at greater risk of exploitation from gangs, smugglers and human traffickers who operate in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican cities along the border.

“There is a big sense of uncertainty,” Ana Cisneros, a Salvadoran activist, told the Blade on Feb. 24 during a Skype interview from Toronto. “That is an awful feeling.”


A coffee shop in Antigua, Guatemala, hosted an anti-Donald Trump party that coincided with his inauguration. The president’s plan to build a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border has sparked concern among migrants from Central America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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