This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Gangsters aren’t known for their progressive attitudes. This is especially true when it comes to sexuality, with various different criminal organizations from the Italian mafia to MS13 routinely murdering any of their members suspected of being in the LGBTQ community.
With that in mind, I was surprised to hear from a Colombian contact of mine, who has served time in a UK jail for drug trafficking, that he knew a young trans woman back in his home country who had a very open romance with a Colombian drug lord. She says he was deeply devoted to her, and it was a relationship that was accepted by most of his peers.
It was also a relationship in part borne out of the severe difficulty of growing up trans in a conservative home. As a teenager, Gabriela was driven out of her home by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her Christian fundamentalist father, and ended up on the streets. She said a chance meeting with the local drug baron changed her life, even if the danger and the violence of the drug trade never went away. This is what she told me.
During my early years, I never envisioned that I would be mixing with drug lords and involved with the streets. My dad was a lawyer, and paid for me to attend a private school. I had a comfortable upbringing financially speaking, and my life would have been relatively easy if I hadn’t been transgender.
I was aware that I was a girl trapped in a male body from a very young age, and used to secretly dress as a girl at my gay friend’s house. I yearned to be able to do the same around my family and eventually decided that it was time to stop living a lie and tell my dad I was transgender.
To say that he didn’t take it well is a major understatement. He’s very religious, and was furious. He beat the shit out of me and took me to his church the next day, where he tried to force me to have an exorcism performed on me to try and drive the gayness out of me. I thought it was ridiculous and refused, which made him even angrier. The situation became so bad that I eventually left home to live on the streets.
The first night I was homeless, I slept in a local park, where I was found by a transgender friend the next day, who took me to meet a pimp she said could help me earn some money. The pimp was an older trans woman who wanted me to sell my body. I refused point blank, so she gave me a knife and some pepper spray and told me that I could take care of the prostitutes instead and make sure that nobody came down the streets they operated on apart from the customers. I was also responsible for doing knifepoint robberies on drunks that staggered down those streets by mistake. My dress sense was very gothic at the time, so God knows what people thought of this little teenage rock chick patrolling the mean streets with a blade. I must have looked a sight.
After a while, I progressed to street robbery and robbing shops at gunpoint. The things I had to do just to survive were sadly not that uncommon for people in certain areas of Colombia. The streets I spent most of my time on were extremely dangerous, and the police would often chase me around when I was with the prostitutes, looking to beat us up. It was a very tense and uncertain period of my life.
We went on motorbike rides together in the mountains and would stare up at the stars together at night. He had a jacuzzi in his house, and we used to relax there together, listening to jazz and deep house.
Fortunately after months spent on the streets, when I was 17, my luck eventually changed. One day, an SUV came down the street the sex workers operated on and a guy got out and asked the pimp if she had any trans women available. He saw me and said he couldn’t resist staying to smoke a cigarette with me. He told me that he was very lonely and needed someone to hang out with. We got talking and he told me that his name was Carlos* and took me for something to eat. He then revealed that he was a major player in the drug world.
Me and Carlos started dating and he paid for me to stay in a flat. He was actually very romantic, and took me all over the country with him. We went on motorbike rides together in the mountains and would stare up at the stars together at night. He had a jacuzzi in his house, and we used to relax there together, listening to jazz and deep house. I was very into house at the time, and would also go to raves with him, flanked by his security. You might not think it, but Colombia actually has a really good rave scene.
I rarely actually saw the darker side of him, although there was one occasion when I was confronted with it head on. He was holding a party at his house and a woman who had drank too much and taken too many drugs started screaming and shouting random things. Carlos and his friends were worried that she was going to start talking about incriminating acts that they had done, so one of them escorted me out of the room so that I wouldn’t see what happened to her.
I never saw the woman again. Carlos was rumored to have killed a lot of people and arranged major drug-smuggling operations involving flying cocaine overseas in planes, so whatever happened to her almost certainly wasn’t pretty.
He was very kind to me, though, and never attempted to hide our relationship. He introduced me to all of his associates, who were all okay with me once they got to know me. The fact that I was transgender soon became an incidental detail. Although there are still lots of people in the local underworld who have negative views of transgender people, I would like to think that the fact I dated Carlos broke down a few barriers and lessened the stigma associated with going out with trans women. Obviously some people still look down on us, but change is a gradual process.
When I broke it to Carlos that I was leaving the country, he went crazy and started shooting up his house. It was scary, but I knew he wouldn’t hurt me.
Three years later, in 2013, our relationship came to an end when I moved to New York to live with my mum. She had found out I’d been homeless and was very worried about me. She asked me to fly over and stay with her and I agreed because I wanted to improve my English. I also fancied a change of scenery; I’d never been to the U.S. before and was excited at the prospect of spending time there.
When I broke it to Carlos that I was leaving the country, he went crazy and started shooting up his house. It was scary, but I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. I guess different people have different ways of handling breakups, and that was just his way of dealing with it.
I enjoyed living with my mum but after a while, she returned to Colombia and I was left to fend for myself again. During this time, I used the hustling skills I’d honed on the streets of Colombia and started selling benzos and amphetamines to support myself. I soon learned that the drug world was a lot less cutthroat in the U.S. than it was back home. It was relatively laid back in comparison, and I ended up making over $1,000 a week.
Earlier this year, I used the drug money to fund a visit to Colombia to see my friends and family there, and within a few weeks of returning, there were signs that Carlos was having me followed.
I noticed the same three SUVs driving by all the time and dodgy-looking characters staring at me when I was at raves. I figured it had to be something to do with my ex, so I rang him up and he told me that he’d sent his bodyguards to watch over me and that he missed me and wanted to meet up. I agreed to meet with him, and he picked me up in his car.
Carlos burst out crying the minute the car door was shut and begged me to go out with him again. He said that he was dating someone horrible and wanted to end the relationship and get back with me instead. I had a boyfriend in New York, so I told him that we’d be better off remaining friends. I broke up with that boyfriend shortly after that, which meant that I never actually ended up returning to the U.S. as I had nothing to go back to, but didn’t resume my relationship with Carlos either. They say to never return to an ex, and I think that’s good advice.
I still have a lot of respect for him though, because he always treated me well and he helped me out when I was in a desperate situation. In spite of his job, he still has a lot of good in him and I will never forget him. Now that I'm 25, I look back at my time with him as a fun stage of my life, filled with glamour but also with a slight undercurrent of danger. It was certainly an experience, and one I’m glad I got to have.
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