March 26, 2019 at 9:37 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBTI migrants struggle to survive along Guatemala-Mexico border
A U.N. Refugee Agency mural in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, that faces the Suchiate River, which marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala, advises migrants of their rights once they enter Mexico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala — Gaudy Coutiño Valladares works for the Guatemalan Red Cross in Tecún Umán, a small city in the country’s San Marcos department that is across the Suchiate River from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

The offices from which Coutiño and her colleagues work are behind a large metal gate on which posters that tell migrants the Guatemalan Red Cross will allow them to call their relatives and charge their phones for free have been placed. It also has a map of Central America that lists migrant shelters, railroads and highways on which migrants can travel to the U.S. border.

Coutiño told the Washington Blade on March 8 as she sat next to a door on which a U.N. Refugee Agency sticker with rainbow colors had been placed that the Guatemalan Red Cross has helped more than 10,000 migrants in Tecún Umán since the first large migrant caravan reached the city in October 2018.

Coutiño told the Blade that she and her colleagues have given water, medications, clothes and shoes to migrants and provided them access to free showers. Coutiño said some of the migrants who arrived in Tecún Umán last fall and in January as part of a second large migrant caravan did not have any underwear.

“They were supported with that,” said Coutiño.

Access to showers is among the assistance that Gaudy Coutiño Valladares and her colleagues at the Guatemalan Red Cross in Tecún Umán, Guatemala, have provided to more than 10,000 migrants who were part of large migrant caravans that traveled through the city on the Guatemala-Mexico border in January and last October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Migrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries have crossed the Suchiate River and entered Mexico’s Chiapas state for decades, in part to find work in the banana industry. Coutiño and other local advocates with whom the Blade has spoken say the number of migrants who have passed through the area over the last year is unprecedented.

People on makeshift rafts crossing the Suchiate River from Guatemala to Mexico on Jan. 29, 2019. Tens of thousands of Central American migrants who are fleeing violence and poverty in their countries of origin have crossed the river in recent months. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A UNHCR report notes there were 312,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras around the world in June 2018. This figure is roughly five times higher than the number of refugees and asylum seekers from the three countries that UNHCR documented at the end of 2014.

A group of 30 LGBTI migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador crossed the Suchiate River and arrived in Ciudad Hidalgo on Feb. 1. Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV who died in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New Mexico on May 25, 2018, arrived at Una Mano Amiga, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Tapachula, a city that is roughly 30 miles northwest of Ciudad Hidalgo, a few weeks earlier after she crossed the Suchiate River from Guatemala.

“She came here to the organization to seek services,” Una Mano Amiga Education Coordinator Lilith Hernández told the Blade on Jan. 29 during an interview at Una Mano Amiga’s offices with Yadira Guerrero Castro, who is the group’s coordinator. “We helped her … her health situation was very critical.”

From left, Lilith Hernández and Yadira Guerrero Castro of Una Mano Amiga, an HIV/AIDS service organization, in their offices in Tapachula, Mexico, on Jan. 29, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

UNHCR has a field office in Tapachula and is planning to open a second in Tecún Umán. Some of the 15 LGBTI migrants from Central America who Casa Ruby brought to D.C. earlier this month after their release from ICE custody were in Tapachula before they traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer “Elisa Martínez,” an AIDS Healthcare Foundation-supported organization that advocates on behalf of sex workers, and the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center are among the Tapachula-based organizations that provide assistance to LGBTI migrants alongside Una Mano Amiga. Asociación Lambda, which is based in Guatemala City, works with LGBTI migrants on the Guatemalan side of the border.

Tapachula’s Miguel Hidalgo Central Park is a few blocks west of the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center and Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer “Elisa Martínez.”

Hundreds of migrants — some of whom were sleeping in tents, under sheets that had been tied to trees or on pieces of cardboard boxes that had been placed on the ground — and a small number of local police officers and advocates were in the park while the Blade was in the city from Jan. 28-31. It was not obviously clear whether any of the migrants identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

Migrants sleep in Miguel Hidalgo Central Park in Tapachula, Mexico, on Jan. 29, 2019. Violence and harassment from local police officers are among the issues that LGBTI migrants face while traveling through the area around the Mexico-Guatemala border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Diego Lucero, a psychologist at the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, told the Blade on Jan. 30 during an interview his organization is “for everyone.” A poster of a man holding a rainbow flag that reads, “this is a safe space for LGBTI people” is one of many that his colleagues have hung on walls throughout the building in which the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center is located.

“We serve women; we serve men,” said Lucero. “We also give attention, things to LGBT people because we know that in some ways these people also come from very vulnerable situations.”

Migrants kept in ‘inhumane conditions’ in local hospitals

Rampant violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and a lack of economic opportunities are among the factors that have prompted LGBTI migrants from Central America to flee their countries of origin.

Many of them hope to seek asylum in the U.S., despite the White House’s immigration policies that include demands for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. President Trump has also threatened to cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador if their governments don’t do more to prevent migrants from leaving their countries.

A flyer on a building in Guatemala City describes Vice President Pence as “persona non grata” during his June 2018 trip to the country. Activists in Central America with whom the Washington Blade has spoken say the Trump administration’s immigration policy has not deterred migrants from traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his government last October faced criticism over its decision not to allow migrants who were traveling with the first caravan to enter the country. Authorities in January granted migrants permits that allowed them to legally enter Guatemala and travel to the country’s border with Mexico.

Migrants who enter Mexico at legal ports of entry can apply for humanitarian visas that allow them to remain in the country for up to a year.

A flyer from the U.N. Refugee Agency in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on Jan. 29, 2019, advises migrants who are fleeing violence, persecution, war or discrimination have a right to apply for refugee status. Ciudad Hidalgo is on the Suchiate River that marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elvira Madrid Romero, founder of Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer “Elisa Martínez,” told the Blade on Jan. 30 during an interview at her organization’s offices in downtown Tapachula that upwards of 85 percent of her clients are “people who come from other countries, especially Central America.” Madrid also said migrants often face discrimination at the city’s public hospitals, noting doctors have placed some of her clients on the floor “in very inhumane conditions.”

“They don’t give them medications,” she told the Blade. “We saw how these people were dying and therefore we decided to put this space here by the border … because it really required a space that did not violate the human rights of its patients and put their health at risk.”

Madrid said trans migrants in particular are often forced into sex work.

She and Lilith Hernández both told the Blade that LGBTI migrants are frequently threatened and attacked in Tapachula and are targeted for extortion. Lilith Hernández said gang members in May 2018 killed a trans sex worker who was from Honduras.

“In general, there is violence towards everyone, especially because of the insecurity,” she said. “Tapachula is unfortunately an unsafe municipality.”

Additional challenges that Una Mano Amiga and other groups on both sides of the Suchiate River face include identifying LGBTI migrants and a lack of shelters to house them.

Coutiño told the Blade she only saw “around 10” migrants who she determined were LGBTI in the caravans that traveled through Tecún Umán, even though she conceded there were likely many more who were part of the community. Lucero said gay and lesbian migrants often hide their sexual orientation in order to protect themselves.

Gutiérrez told the Blade that she and her colleagues at Una Mano Amiga used rainbow flags to help them identify LGBTI migrants. Lucero conceded Tapachula is a city that remains “racist, very xenophobic and yes, very discriminatory.”

“The rejection of migrants and LGBTI people is greater,” he added.

Casa del Migrante is a migrant shelter in Tecún Umán, Guatemala, that works with Asociación Lambda, an LGBTI advocacy group in Guatemala City. It is located near the Suchiate River that marks the border between Guatemala and Mexico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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