Stabbed 58 times, transgender woman flees El Salvador
Neila is among a growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from Central America seeking asylum in Mexico.
TAPACHULA, Mexico, Dec 8 (UNHCR) - With red hair, carefully made up and dressed in feminine attire, Neila stood out in the gang-ravaged El Salvador neighbourhood where she was raised as a boy.
She put up with the taunts, jeers and insults over her gender identity for years, but it was a fourth savage knife attack that finally drove the 26-year-old beautician to flee for her life.
"This is all because my gender identity differs from what is traditional," said Neila, who was stabbed 58 times in the attacks, which left her with a necklace of scarring around her throat and slash wounds to her arm.
Now living in a shared room in this city in southern Mexico, she is among a growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from Central America's so-called "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are fleeing assaults and harassment for safety in neighbouring countries.
Between January 2013 and March 2014, at least 594 people who were either LGBTI or were perceived to be so, were killed across the Americas, while another 176 were victims of serious physical assaults, according to a study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
In Honduras, LGBTI activists have reported at least 190 murders in the last five years. In Neila's native El Salvador, meanwhile, the non-profit "Entre Amigos" reported that 11 LGBTI people were murdered in 2008, 23 in 2009 and 10 in 2010. Corpses frequently showed signs of assault, torture and rape.
A surge in gang-related violence, and crimes including rape and extortion, drove more than 29,000 people to flee Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala last year and apply for refugee status in 2014 in other countries in the region - and among them were a growing number of LGBTI people, the UN Refugee Agency said.
"In the past three years, we have seen a major increase in the number of people from the LGBTI community who are fleeing gender-based persecution in the Northern Triangle of Central America," said Mark Manly, UNHCR Representative in Mexico.
"Gays, lesbians, and particularly transgender women have become targets for the criminal networks that control many neighbourhoods. Others have suffered serious abuse and discrimination within their families or their communities," he added.
So far this year, 13 per cent of the cases assisted by UNHCR's field office in Tapachula were from the LGBTI community. "Our objective is to ensure that they have information on the possibility of seeking asylum in Mexico, access to the determination procedure, as well as safe and dignified living conditions," Manly said. "If they find protection in southern Mexico, they can avoid the extreme danger faced by migrants who travel north in the hopes of entering the United States".
To that end, Mexico has included persecution based on gender as a fifth factor for recognizing refugee status, said Manly, and the UNHCR has actively advocated in the region for states to guarantee the safety of people fleeing discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
After working as a prostitute to raise the funds needed to flee El Salvador, Neila endured a spell on the streets of Tapachula before two friends helped her with food and water and brought her to UNHCR's attention.
For now, her bed is a piece of cardboard on the floor of a room she shares with five others. Her wardrobe is a string hanging from the wall. She subsists on prepaid rationing cards provided by the UN Refugee Agency as she waits to see if she will be granted refugee status in Mexico.
She trusts no-one, she said, and is afraid to move too far from the security of the room she shares. She longs to see her family - her mother, she said, was always supportive of her sexual identity - and worries about their safety back at home in El Salvador.
"I miss my family, and every day I fear for their lives because my mother was witness to a murder while she was selling sandals on the street," she said. "But there is no way to get them out of there."
More information about the situation of transgender women can be found here.
By Francesca Fontanini in Tapachula, México