Identity

In Mexico City, a Community Rallies in Wake of Two Horrifying Trans Murders

Two high-profile deaths of transgender sex workers have sparked ongoing protests in Mexico City, where LGBTQ rights have made slow and unsteady progress. We speak to organizers and demonstrators on the street.

by Andalusia Knoll Soloff
Nov 20 2016, 2:10pm

All photos by Andalusia Knoll

In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to extreme violence and suicide in 2016, we're taking an in-depth look at the social factors that contributed to their deaths. Read more of our coverage here.

On November 13, 2015, Alessa Flores took to the stage to celebrate Mexico City's newly declared Día de la Población Trans (Spanish for "Trans People Day"). Flores, a sex worker and activist, had been involved in a years-long campaign to pressure the local government to respect the rights of transgender people. She had been invited to the public inauguration with the city's mayor, which was announced as part of its ongoing initiative to make the city more LGBTQ-friendly—the local government had also committed to guaranteeing trans people access to mental health and legal resources, as well as official identification that reflects their gender identity. On that day, the 27 year old proudly held a flag that said, "No more trans deaths."

Eleven months later, Flores was found strangled in a Mexico City hotel. Her murder came just two weeks after the killing of Paola Ledezma, a 25-year-old trans sex worker originally from Campeche, a southern Mexico border state.

In response to Ledezma's death, a few dozen trans sex workers, activists, and allies paraded her open casket through downtown Mexico City in early October, stopping traffic and making headlines all over the world. It sparked an ongoing wave of protests against transphobic violence in the Mexican capital, including a November 13 demonstration where activists symbolically laid a large rainbow flag and high heeled shoes in front of the nation's most historic church in the city's central plaza.

"We have been waiting generations [for transphobic violence to end] and we just can't wait any longer," says Kenya Cuevas, a sex worker and activist who has helped to organize the recent demonstrations after atending the protest for Ledezma in October.

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Cuevas became friends with Ledezma shortly after the latter had arrived in Mexico City. The pair worked the same street corners and spent their free time dancing, drinking, and hanging out with each other. According to Cuevas, Ledezma's last john had offered Cuevas approximately 200 pesos (around $10) for a trick earlier. She had rejected the price, but Ledezma accepted and got into his car.

Minutes later, Cuevas says, she heard shots ring out and ran to the man's vehicle, only to find Ledezma slumped lifelessly in the car. Her client was in the driver's seat, holding a gun. Police detained the man as a suspect, but he was set free when a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to continue with the case.

Protesters at a march demanding justice for trans victims of hate crime. All photos by Andalusia Knoll

According to the Mexico Global Impunity Index, 99 percent of all crimes in the country go unpunished. This shocking level of impunity adds up to lethal equation for the trans community, which already faces widespread social prejudice. The organization Transgender Europe documented 217 murders of trans men and women in Mexico between 2008 and 2016, ranking it the second deadliest country in the world for trans people after Brazil. Rocio Suárez, a spokesperson from the Mexico City-based pressure group Center of Support for Trans Identities, tells Broadly that 12 trans people have been killed in October of this year alone.

Suárez's group believe that a large majority of transgender sex workers in Mexico City have fled socially conservative states, often after they were kicked out of their family's homes. He says that Mexico City has few work opportunities for trans people, and they often turn to sex work to survive. "They then face the double stigmatization, of being trans and being a sex worker," he adds.

This year, instead of celebrating Día de la Población Trans, a few dozen activists and sex workers took to the streets on November 13 to demand justice for Flores, Ledezma, and all trans deaths in Mexico. "We have nothing to celebrate. Justice keeps being a challenge for us as trans women," Lia Garcia says. Garcia, a student and trans campaigner, had first become friends with Flores through their shared activism, and described her as someone who was "very energetic and full of life [and] proudly celebrated her identity as a puta (Mexican slang for a sex worker)."

Demonstrators hold a sign that reads "no more trans femicides."

Before her death, Flores spoke about her activism and occupation on her YouTube channel, Memories of a Puta. In a video posted in November of 2015, she read out the names of transgender sex workers who had died, and said, "I hope that my name never makes in on this poster and that sex work will not be the end of me, because I would like to do other things with my life."

On paper, Mexico is one of the most LGBTQ friendly places in Latin America: the country forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and Mexico City has recognized same sex marriage and passed legislation that explicitly outlaws discrimination against transgender people. The reality is quite different. According to a report by the Transgender Law Center and Cornell University Law School LGBT Clinic, trans women "continue to face beatings, rape, police harassment, torture, and murder in Mexico."

As part of its commitment to LGBTQ rights, Mexico City has an agency set up to deal with complaints of discrimination and harassment. It's supposed to make justice more accessible to victims, but trans women say that this is far from the case. The Transgender Law Center and Cornell University Law School LGBT Clinic note that the agency only received one complaint from a transgender person between January 2012 and April 2013—a period that also saw the murders of eight trans women in Mexico City.

A protester holds a cross bearing Alessa Flores' name.

"Trans bodies are irrelevant to the Mexican government," says Garcia. Last November, shortly after the commemoration, she and Flores went to their local police station to report that they had been denied access to the women's bathroom in a nearby shopping mall. She says that the police didn't take their complaint seriously.

"They don't have personnel trained in how to receive a trans person, who is trying to ensure that their rights are being protected and that they have access to justice," Garcia explains.

At one of the recent protests demanding justice for trans victims, a woman held a sign with the words, "Don't you mess with my daughters! Sincerely, God." The sign was a tongue in cheek reference to a key slogan ("Don't mess with my children") for the National Front for the Family, a church-backed conservative movement that has mobilized tens of thousands of conservatives to protest LGBTQ rights. Most recently, it staged nation-wide marches to denounce Mexico president Enrique Peña Nieto's support for equal marriage.

Cuevas and other trans activists say they have seen a surge in violence and harassment since these right wing protests. They add that transphobic media coverage of the murders doesn't help, either: It's not uncommon for publications to wrongly identify the victims as transvestites or run photos of their bodies with headlines reading "Man dressed as a woman found dead."

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"The law recognizes us as women, they shouldn't talk about us that way with that transphobic tone," Cuevas says. "They should just refer to us as women."

Some Mexican trans people—along with an increasing number of Mexican citizens fleeing cartel violence—attempt to escape the persecution and harassment by applying for asylum in the US. While there is no way to know exactly how many transgender people have sought refuge across the border, the Transgender Law Center and Cornell University Law School LGBT Clinic believe that the current anti-discrimination laws actually work against these asylum seekers. "Based on these [progressive] changes in the law," they write, "some immigration judges have mistakenly concluded that LGBT people no longer face homophobic and transphobic violence in Mexico."

Trans activists in the country have another way of describing the situation: They say that the government has only fobbed them off with atole con el dedo ("promises that are not kept"). They vow to keep protesting until their sisters' murderers are brought to justice. At one Mexico City demonstration, a group of a few hundred sex workers and queer activists blocked off a main road. "We need to be safe," one protester told Broadly, "so that tomorrow, neither us nor you will be the next Paola."