The killing of a trans woman in Mexico City highlights harsh reality for LGBTQ in the Americas
Protesters decrying the murder of a transgender sex worker stopped traffic on their way to a funeral parlor in Mexico City exactly a week ago to display the victim’s open casket for all passersby to see. It was an extreme action at the spot where she had died days earlier, and it was meant to spark public outrage after the victim’s killer walked out of the courthouse with all charges dropped.
The campaign demanding justice for the 25-year-old victim, named Paola, has put a searing spotlight on the daily aggression suffered by members of the LGBTQ community in Central and Latin America. Despite progress in recent years, trans people remain one of the region’s most vulnerable communities, regularly targeted with impunity for the perpetrators.
“This is an important case,” said Rocio Suárez, of the Center of Support for Trans Identities pressure group. “It’s giving voice and visibility to a group that is almost always ignored.”
Why trans abuse often goes unchecked in Mexico
Mexico City prides itself on being a bubble of progressiveness in a largely conservative country and continent. Back in 2009, local legislators approved same-sex marriage, and in 2015 they approved reforms to allow trans people to change the gender on their birth certificates. Much is made about inclusion and the celebration of diversity in Mexico City.
But most in the city’s trans community still typically deal with a lifetime of rejection by their families and potential employers. Sex work is one of the very few ways they can live openly and earn money. And while state institutions may talk a good game, they remain riddled with corrupt and abusive officials.
“Mexico City is a place where there have been concrete advances in the laws and in the discourse,” said Jaime Montejo of the sex workers advocacy group Brigada Callejera, or Street Brigade. “[But] the practice on the ground is a different matter and there is still a lot of hatred for diversity in any of its forms, and for trans people especially.”
Police rarely even attempt to track down those they suspect of killing trans people, activists say, so these murders continue unchecked.
This wasn’t the problem in Paola’s case, where the suspect was sitting next to her with a gun at the scene of the crime.
The numbers on trans abuse in the Americas
While murders of LGBT activists in Mexico have caused a stir in the past, Suárez says this is the first time she recalls the death of a sex worker sparking such outrage. An online petition on Change.org now has more than 7,000 signatures, and the hashtag #JusticiaParaPaola, or #JusticeForPaola has seen a steady stream of mentions.
According to the latest worldwide survey, based on data collected by local activists and collated by the advocacy group Transgender Europe, there were 2,115 reported killings of “trans and gender diverse people” in 65 countries between January 2008 and April 2016. Over 78 percent of those murders took place in Latin America.
In absolute numbers, Brazil tops the list with 845 murders, Mexico comes in a distant second with 247, and the United States is third with 141. But Honduras, a country of just 8 million people, reported 80 such murders, giving the Central American country by far the highest reported trans murder rate, per capita, in the world.
Within this bleak regional panorama, trans people in Mexico City are among those most protected — in theory.
The killing and the video
Paola was killed on Sept. 30 shortly after driving off with a client who had promised her 200 pesos (just over $10) to have sex with him.
Three of Paola’s colleagues at the busy Insurgentes Boulevard junction where they worked together most nights had reportedly already turned him down. Paola’s friend Kenya was one of them. She told VICE News she had a funny feeling about the client but didn’t know exactly why.
Kenya said the car carrying Paola stopped just a few meters up the road, close enough to hear the screaming that ensued. She then heard two shots fired and ran to the vehicle in time to identify the client, who was holding a gun and pushing Paola’s limp body off him.
“Paola, hold on, hold on, hold on.”
Distraught, Kenya immediately flagged down a passing police car. She started filming on her phone once the officers had disarmed and restrained the man. The video captures Paola slumped in the passenger seat, her mouth open. The camera then turns on the police car, where the suspect can be seen inside, proclaiming his innocence.
“She’s still alive,” Kenya then screams, directing the camera back toward Paola. “Paola, hold on, hold on, hold on.”
Yet the key suspect — initially remanded in custody for 48 hours — was later set free by a judge on the grounds police lacked sufficient evidence for his arrest. The suspect, according to Rocio Suárez, testified that an argument broke out after he realized Paola was “not a woman” and that she had then tried to rob him. He told the judge he had no idea how Paola ended up being shot twice.
“Not even a manslaughter charge,” Kenya told VICE News. “Really?”
The killing received some notice on social media, thanks in part to the graphic video Kenya posted on her Facebook page. The subsequent media attention generated by the funeral has left Kenya and her group relatively hopeful as they wait for a higher court to rule on an appeal against the judge’s original decision. She expects that decision to come at any moment but cannot be sure when.
For now she remains hopeful. “The first thing we want and that we need is that man to be in prison. Then we want this to mean that there are changes in the way we are treated,” she said. “It’s a very sad thing to say, but maybe we needed something like this to make people realize what is going on.”
Cover: Isaac Esquivel/Cuartoscuro.com