Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Trans Sex Worker Transformed Gang-Controlled Prison
SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — Karla Avelar had a backache when she reached the Sensuntepeque Penal Center, a cluster of cinderblock buildings perched on the side of a lush green valley near El Salvador’s border with Honduras. So, after lunch, she took off her shirt and lay facedown on the cement floor of a room that doubles as activity space and cafeteria. Five women in bright makeup gave her a head-to-toe massage. They used hand cream as massage oil and placed a small candle over the knot in her back to draw out the pain.
Avelar was so at ease inside the prison that it is hard to imagine that she was regularly raped and tortured while she was incarcerated there between 1996 and 2000. Avelar, now 37 years old, was one of the many trans sex workers from San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, who has done time there over the past several decades. The ones who passed through there around the same time as Avelar report being abused by guards and pressed into a kind of slavery by the gangs who controlled the prison.
Those days are over, thanks in part to a legal complaint Avelar herself filed after her release. The women who rubbed her back on her recent visit, just before Christmas, are among the roughly 50 inmates who live in Sector 2, a special unit that houses trans women along with a handful of gay men. They still interact with the other prisoners in some common areas — several of them have boyfriends in the men’s unit, and the prison supplies them with condoms — but they live and sleep in a part of the prison that is walled off from the men’s unit for their safety.
“Today there is no rape,” said one 25-year-old inmate who gave her name as Kendra. Kendra said she was subject to some verbal abuse when she first arrived in 2010 — a guard forced her to kneel for two hours while hurling homophobic insults at her — but Avelar came to see her and helped put a stop to it. The sealing of Sector 2 in that same year coincided with a decision by the prison administration to move the gang members out of the prison, which also went a long way to improving the trans and gay inmates’ situation.
Many of them have stories much like Avelar’s: Thrown out of home at an early age, they got by as sex workers, and survived rape or run-ins with gangs before landing in Sensuntepeque. They look to Avelar as a cross between a godmother and an advocate, able to win concessions from the prison administration that they could never get on their own. During the December visit, Avelar delivered a petition from the residents of Sector 2 to the warden asking that they be allowed to join the women’s unit for a Christmas pageant. He agreed to it in writing on the spot.
“They’re a little afraid of me because I’ve gotten them to remove certain guards,” she told BuzzFeed News during the three-hour drive to the prison from San Salvador. “So with me, [the guards] are all like, ‘Hello, Niña Karlita,’” greeting her with an affectionate nickname.
In a country where HIV and violence claims so many trans women’s lives that there are few trans women in San Salvador over the age of 35, it’s remarkable that Avelar is even still alive. She was raped and threatened with murder for the first time when she was 10, has survived at least three murder attempts as an adult, and has lived with HIV that went untreated for more than 13 years. Since 2008, she has run the trans rights organization she founded in San Salvador, known by the acronym COMCAVIS Trans. She regularly travels around the world to make the case for trans rights before international human rights bodies.
Avelar is part of a generation of trans activists in El Salvador, most of whom never finished primary school. They have won some substantial victories — including a directive issued by the government in 2010 prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in government jobs — even though human rights advocates consider El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for LGBT people. Based on media reports, COMCAVIS has documented at least twelve women and two gay men were killed in 2014, a figure they believe understates the actual number of murders.
“In terms of Karla’s transformation, I can say, ‘Wow, when I’m all grown up I want to be just like her’ — only that she’s younger than me,” said William Hernández, who founded El Salvador’s first LGBT rights organization in 1994, Entre Amigos (which translates to “Among Friends”).
“We met her on the streets,” Hernandez said. “We knew the comings and goings of all of the things she lived through.” Now, he marvels at seeing her in meetings seated next to ambassadors and cabinet ministers. “And she’s not just sitting there — she’s actually expressing herself, making decisions and laying the cards on the table.”