In the early hours of a humid morning in March 2017, Alexandra Acevedo made her way to the railroad tracks that skirt the edge of Tenosique, a border town in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. The sun wouldn’t come up for a few more hours, but the gravel path was already crowded with immigrants. Most of them were from Honduras like her, and all of them were trying to board the cargo train known as La Bestia, or The Beast, which they hoped to ride to the US border.
While Alexandra waited at the station, three masked men emerged from the darkness and dragged her to a hidden corner behind the platform, where they robbed, beat, and raped her. It was the worst attack she’d suffered in the months since leaving Honduras, but certainly not the first. When the assault ended, she gathered herself, and limped up the slope to a migrant shelter called La 72. Founded by Franciscan monks in 2011, La 72 was the first shelter in Mexico to open a dormitory exclusively for LGBTQ migrants like Alexandra; it was also the place where, as Alexandra tells it now, her new life as an openly trans woman began.
I first met Alexandra, whose name I’ve changed so as not to affect her current legal status as an asylum applicant, about two months later on a stifling afternoon in May. She sat straight in a plastic chair, ankles crossed, on a narrow balcony looking out over the cluster of brightly painted houses and palm-thatch umbrellas that constitute La 72. Enclosed by low walls in an open field studded with mango trees, the shelter feels very much like the oasis that it is (in the LGBTQ dormitory, populated by young men and women living freely for the first time, it can also feel, rather disconcertingly, like summer camp). Alexandra’s posture was upright, almost prim, her makeup carefully, but inexpertly, applied. “I’ve survived so many things, so many injuries, nearly dying. But even though I’m trans, God never allowed me to feel far from him,” she told me, dabbing beads of sweat from her brow and upper lip. “Here I’m a happy person,” she said, mustering a smile. “I’m protected.”
For people like Alexandra, protection does not exist back home. Driven from their families by long-standing prejudices made stronger by the waxing power of the evangelical church, queer Hondurans are systematically refused access to work and housing, leaving them exposed to extortion, assault, and forced recruitment by the gangs that have all but controlled the country for the better part of a decade. According to Cattrachas, an organization that gathers what are widely considered the country’s most comprehensive data on violent crimes against the LGBTQ community, 34 queer people were killed in Honduras in 2017. Only nine of those crimes came to court. Fewer still yielded convictions. Honduras is arguably the most dangerous country on earth to be queer.
Alexandra grew up in the small city of Santa Bárbara in western Honduras, not far from the notoriously violent regional capital of San Pedro Sula. She first came out to her family—as gay, not trans—at the age of 12. That was 2009, the same year as the military coup that sent crime soaring. “My mother, come what may, she accepted me, but my father, he threatened to kill me with a machete when he found out,” she told me. Though a friend took her in, Alexandra still faced threats from neighbors and gang members, called mareros, throughout her adolescence. Whenever she passed her father on the street—which was often; Santa Barbara has a population of only about 40,000—he would verbally abuse her, spit on her, and sometimes even publicly beat her.
Though she still presented as male, Alexandra told me, “I always admired trans women and wanted to be like them, but it’s really complicated in my country.” Most of the trans women she knew worked in the sex trade. “[For trans women] in Honduras there’s no other work aside from that,” she told me, “but, in my case, for me, personally, it didn’t feel like the right thing.” She heard stories of trans women and gay men murdered in the big cities. She had friends killed by stray bullets and another, a sex worker, whose feet were hacked off by a client. “She died. They always die,” she said.
At 16, she found a job selling clothing at a small shop in town (a rarity for queer people who can’t or won’t pass as straight) and quit school to work full time. She’d been working for two years when her father turned up at the store one day, unannounced. “He came in, and he started to hit me, and when they fired me, they told me that was why,” she said. “I was just an employee, so when he made a scandal, they chased me out.” Staying in Santa Barbara became impossible. She figured she would never find another job or escape her father’s violence, which she was afraid could one day turn deadly. In 2016, she packed what little she owned and left for Guatemala; she was 19 years old.
“While I was in Guatemala, that’s when I started to dress as a woman. That’s where I started to liberate myself,” she said, but the violence she’d left pursued her across the border. In Guatemala City, Honduran mareros (she knew them by the tattoos covering their arms) beat her unconscious and left her bleeding on the side of the road. She was hospitalized for 10 days. At the border with Mexico, she walked two days through the jungle to avoid immigration police, whom she feared not just for their power to deport—in 2016, Mexico deported more than 150,000 Central American immigrants, about twice as many as the United States—but also for their reputation as abusers of undocumented migrants. Once in Tenosique, she spent months living as discreetly as she could before that night at the train tracks. Shortly after arriving at La 72, she filed a police report, encouraged by the staff to secure a formal record of what had transpired.
In the two months between arriving at La 72 and speaking with me, Alexandra had begun to vocalize, for the first time, the identity that she’d kept buried for so many years. Surrounded by other trans women whose experiences of violence mirrored her own, she began to understand herself not only as trans but also as a victim of persecution. I asked how she had selected her new name. “I chose it in memory of a friend who died,” she said.
Tenosique is a narrow grid of concrete houses arrayed like debris along the western bank of the meandering Usumacinta River. To the west, green mountains file from one edge of the horizon to the other, steady as a fortress wall. Located about 35 miles from the border crossing at El Ceibo, Tenosique has always received some flow of migrants, but it wasn’t until the opening of the highway connecting the town to the border in 2000 that their numbers started to rise dramatically. As the number of migrants increased, so did the violence they met on the Mexican side of the border, sometimes at the hands of organized criminal groups and other times from Mexican officials. In August 2010, the massacre of 72 immigrants by the Zetas in the northern state of Tamaulipas swept through the news; eight months later, the Franciscan monks who had been tending to Tenosique’s migrant population for decades opened La 72, naming it for the anonymous dead. “It’s our task to embrace the most vulnerable,” said Ramón Márquez, director of the house since 2014, though not himself a member of the order. “Francis was the saint of the lepers, and the refugee is the leper of the 21st century.”
New arrivals come in at all hours, greeted by young volunteers who give brief talks on the house schedule and rules (no violence, no discrimination), and a longer one held daily to outline immigrants’ rights and explain the path to asylum for the growing number of people who wish to pursue it. In 2011, Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Aid (COMAR) received fewer than 1,000 requests for asylum; five years later, it registered just shy of 9,000. Even in 2017, when the overall number of immigrants crossing from Central America to Mexico dropped by as much as 40 percent, asylum applications increased by 66 percent. Silvia Colombo, director of the UNHCR’s offices in Tenosique, told me, “Instead of being seen by people crossing as a stopover, [Mexico] is now being seen as a destination.” The majority of those applicants are Honduran.
Though COMAR does not collect statistics on LGBTQ asylum seekers, Márquez noted that the module at La 72 has consistently registered more people with each passing year. Though 2017 was Mexico’s most violent year on record, the country is still seen as a beacon of tolerance in a conservative region. “Anything is better than where people are coming from,” Colombo told me.
This is particularly true of Honduras, governed since the 2009 coup by the right-wing Partido Nacional (PN), or National Party, which maintains close ties to the anti-queer evangelical church. That alliance, combined with scrutiny by the UN and international watchdog groups, has yielded a series of small steps forward, countered by large steps back.
In 2011, Manuel Zelaya, the ex-president deposed in the 2009 coup, created a secretary for LGBT rights within his newly formed left-wing Liberty and Refoundation Party, and appointed prominent gay activist Erick Martínez Salgado as director. “This was the first party to recognize sexual diversity within its structure,” Martínez told me in a recent phone interview. That year, Zelaya’s party ran a trans candidate, Claudia Spellman, in San Pedro Sula, and the openly gay former journalist Erick Martínez Ávila in Tegucigalpa. Not long after announcing his candidacy, Martínez Ávila was murdered. Spellman, under constant threat from local gangs, eventually fled to the United States. The human-rights group Cattrachas recorded 40 deaths in 2012, still the worst on record.
A year later, reforms to the penal code resulted in the creation of Article 321, which made hate crimes against LGBTQ people—including speech by journalists, preachers, and politicians—punishable with jail time. Yet that article, said Indyra Mendoza, director of Cattrachas, was just one of many recommendations handed over by a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups to the secretary of human rights, a ministry formed under the first post-coup regime in 2010. “[The secretary] did nothing—and I mean nothing,” Mendoza told me (Martínez agreed that “the plan to action was never taken seriously by this government”). “The community is fleeing,” Mendoza went on. “Before they were leaving for economic reasons. Now they leave because of violence.”
Last year, the opposition ran 12 queer candidates across Honduras, yet November’s embattled elections—endorsed by the US government despite ample evidence of irregularities—resulted in the reinstatement of the Partido Nacional. At his inauguration, held behind closed doors blockaded by armed guards as deadly protests raged outside, President Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn into office amid representatives of the evangelical church. One of the first acts of the new congress, dominated by the Partido Nacional, will be another reform of the penal code. That reform bill, which both Martínez and Mendoza said will almost certainly pass, includes important advances in its treatment of internal migrants, driven from their homes by widespread and ongoing violence. But it will also eliminate Article 321.
Through all that turmoil, violence has remained a constant. Overall homicide rates, as reported by the Honduran government, have declined by nearly 50 percent since their peak in 2011. Yet the number of queer people dying violent deaths hasn’t budged. In the course of my two visits to La 72, first in May of last year, and more recently in February, I spoke with over a dozen queer people whose lives were upended by violence.
I met Cristina and Emily, 18 and 21, trans women who in their years as sex workers had been repeatedly abused by clients, but were too afraid to file a claim with the police. Their asylum applications were eventually denied. I met an intersex tattoo artist called Lobo (or wolf) who has been beaten, shot, and tortured by mareros for refusing to tattoo them. He’s now blind in one eye, the result of a blow to the head. He still has bullets lodged in his bones.
I met Raúl, who left home at 15 and supported himself by selling bottled water in the street, where he was threatened repeatedly by mareros because of his sexuality. After witnessing a kidnapping last summer, he started receiving daily threats from mareros who told him if he testified he would die. Raúl told me about trans friends who’d had been beaten to near death, forced to abandon their studies when they refused to attend classes dressed as boys, and killed themselves out of despair. His application was eventually granted, but not on the grounds of persecution for his sexual orientation.
I met Jonatan and his boyfriend, Pedro, who made a first failed attempt to escape from Honduras shortly after the brutal murder of Jonatan’s younger brother by mareros in March 2017. Deported from Mexico back to Honduras, Jonatan and Pedro made a go at a life together in northern Honduras, far from the site of Jonatan’s brother’s disappearance. They were driven from their first shared apartment by neighbors, who complained that they were “making a scandal,” and from the next by their landlady, who burst in one evening wielding a machete and screaming homophobic epithets. Days after that, Jonatan and Pedro discovered the shop they ran together vandalized, emptied of merchandise, and marked by mareros. They fled for the second time soon after. This time they came to La 72, where they applied for asylum in Mexico. “Before, I didn’t know I had the right to that,” Jonatan explained.
A few weeks ago, walking with friends from the shelter in the center of Tenosique, Jonatan and Pedro saw one of the mareros who had been pursuing them back home. The gang member didn’t say anything, just stared at them as they passed. A few days after that, one of their friends reported seeing him loitering outside the gates of the shelter. The groups they’d fled at home had pursued them across two international borders. Locals in Tenosique, perhaps inevitably, blame the highly visible immigrant community for rising criminality and delinquency in their town, driven at least in part by the growing presence of Honduran gangs like Barrio 18.
The day before I spoke with Jonatan, he and Pedro and another friend, also from Honduras, had been accosted by the police and erroneously accused of theft in the middle of the street. “Since then everyone treats us like thieves. They look at us like we’re the worst criminals around,” Jonatan said. “I have to live with it, but it just makes me sad because I’ve never stolen a thing in my life.”
Still, at the end of our conversation, he told me, “Look at the luck I have! To be here, to feel comfortable and like myself. What more could I ask for?”
He’s still waiting for a ruling on his asylum claim.
After months of waiting, Alexandra received her answer from COMAR. Her application for asylum was denied. Instead, they offered her what’s known as a humanitarian visa, essentially a one-year pass to move freely about the country given to those who have suffered human-rights abuses within Mexico. Days later, she left Tenosique for Mexico City. She knew no one, but was eager to move forward after months of waiting idly.
Alexandra spent her first three nights sleeping on a rain-slicked granite bench in the Alameda, a colonial-era park at the edge of the city’s historic center. She was cold and wet and alone, but also hopeful. The city was big, its wide avenues lined with tall buildings like she’d only ever seen in movies. Gay men kissed in public; trans women like her went about in broad daylight, seemingly unafraid.
For those first few days in the city, she walked up and down the streets south of the Alameda, stopping at every café, juice bar, and canteen to ask for work. Within two weeks of arriving, she’d picked up a waitress gig (under-the-table, of course) and found a roommate, a young trans woman from Guatemala. We saw each other intermittently in those weeks, and each time she seemed happier. She told me about the bars she went to in the Zona Rosa, one of Mexico City’s gay districts, and the boy she broke up with because he spent a whole date on his phone: “We went to the clubs together, but eventually I told him, ‘If your phone can dance better than me, maybe you should date it.’”
Then, two months later, she decided to leave. We agreed to meet on her last morning in Mexico City back at the Alameda. Wavy black hair extensions poured out of a high pony tail, and she strode into the park a cool 15 minutes late. She wore a sienna dress, silver heels, silver hoops, and a pearl choker. She had impeccably applied matching red lipstick, coral blush, and eye shadow.
I asked her why she’d decided to leave Mexico. She explained that her humanitarian visa was a temporary solution to a permanent problem—a problem driven home one night when another man she’d briefly dated came to her house and started heaving rocks at her window and shouting crude, transphobic names: “I knew then that it was going to be just the same as in Honduras, that I wasn’t really safe here.”
A few weeks earlier, she’d joined a group of gay and trans immigrants who, with help from a queer migrant organization called Diversidad sin Fronteras (Diversity Without Borders), had been raising money to pay for bus tickets north. They had enough to reach Saltillo, the capital of the border state of Coahuila, and were headed there, she told me, later that morning. Legal and human-rights groups would be monitoring their progress. They would have a videographer along, who, in the course of their journey, would function as a makeshift security detail for the social-media age. None of the young men and women she would be traveling with, all persecuted in their home countries on account of their sexual orientation, had been granted asylum. “Mexico is beautiful,” she said, “but they won’t protect us in the way we deserve.”
The caravan, as the group called itself, made its way north, eventually stopping in Nogales, where lawyers from across the border assisted them in preparing their asylum applications. A month later they crossed the border, holding hands. After a day in the hielera, or ice box, and another in a detention center outside Phoenix, they were transferred to the Cibola County Detention Center in New Mexico, the only ICE facility with a designated area for trans women. (Though ICE issued an internal Memorandum on Transgender Care in 2015, most trans immigrants remain mixed in with the general population, where they remain extremely vulnerable to assault. When I e-mailed ICE to ask about the memo, a representative responded that following it was optional, because it “remains a voluntary amendment to an existing contract.”)
After two months in detention, Alexandra and all the women she’d arrived with were released under parole into the households of sponsors from around the country—a result that, according to Jackie Yodashkin, public-affairs director for the New York–based legal-advocacy group Immigration Equality, is far from common. Last month, Alexandra had her first hearing before a judge and told her story in front of 20 other asylum seekers and their lawyers. She was the only trans woman there.
Over the course of the next year, she will likely have another five hearings to determine whether or not she can stay in the United States, but that uncertainty hasn’t stopped her from planning a future. If she wins her case, she wants to move to California and study acting. “I’d like to become a public figure, to help other trans people, or members of the LGBT community, who also suffer so much,” she told me over the phone one evening in February. I was in Tenosique again; she was in Arizona. “I’ve passed those limits and overcome so much, and I want to help other people do the same.”
“What you have to try and do is keep going,” she said before hanging up the phone and going back to her new American boyfriend, who was waiting patiently in the next room, “because there’s nothing else you can do.”