Five years on the run had left her drained. From the floor of that San Diego cell, it seemed like she was out of options. She could not bear the thought of being forced by ICE to return to El Salvador. That would be a death sentence.
Death threats from violent gangs had chased Cristel from her native El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, up to the U.S. border. They kept her awake at night, echoing in the back of her head. In El Salvador and on her journey north, she had been bullied, threatened, robbed, beaten and raped. At one point, she had turned to sex work. She had been kidnapped and abused. She had escaped, but she still didn’t feel safe.
Cristel is not her real name. She is 25 and grew up in San Salvador. As a transgender woman, she has faced discrimination and violence nearly her entire life. My colleagues and I met Cristel half a dozen times over the last 18 months, first in San Salvador, and later at different points along her journey, as she moved toward what she hoped was salvation in the U.S.
Over time, Cristel lost weight and dark circles appeared under her eyes as fear, exhaustion and frustration took hold. Sometimes while we were talking, there would be seemingly unstoppable bursts of tears. Weeks might go by before we heard from her. Had she been hurt, or worse? The question, “What is going to happen to me?”, which she asked at every one of our meetings, became more and more urgent.
Many of San Salvador’s neighborhoods are controlled by a criminal gang, called a mara. The city has one of the world’s highest murder rates. Our first visit to Cristel’s neighborhood took a bit of planning. First, a photographer and I had to find a driver willing to take us there. We made an emergency exit plan. We left the windows down as the car drove through the neighborhood — the gang wants to see who comes into their territory, and they don’t usually welcome outsiders. The driver waited for us at Cristel’s door, engine running. We had half an hour.
When she was growing up, Cristel knew she was a woman. By the time she had finished high school, she decided that wearing clothes she felt comfortable in was not enough. She grew her hair, took hormones, started wearing make-up and changed her name. Her family was always supportive, she said.
Cristel welcomed us into her home that first time with a wide smile. She had recently moved in with Daniel, her boyfriend. (Daniel is also not his real name.) They had a small but cozy and colorful room at the front of an old house. In a corner were Cristel’s tools — an array of brushes, hair pins and nail polishes. She had a job in a beauty salon. The pay was $5 a day.
It was a rare moment of happiness for Cristel and Daniel amid years of pain and uncertainty. She had already fled El Salvador twice by the time we first met her. The first time was in 2014, and she made it all the way to the U.S. But her mother fell ill, so she came back to El Salvador.
The second time she tried to flee, it was because she feared her life was in danger. A local gang member had been trying to convince her to go out with him. When he realized she was transgender, things got ugly. Bullying turned into threats, extortion and attacks. Then one day, the gang told her she had 24 hours to leave the country. “He told me that if I didn’t leave,” Cristel said, “he was going to kill me. He only gave me time to pack two changes of clothes and start a trip to the unknown.”
The journey was harrowing. She made it through Guatemala and crossed into Mexico through a shallow river near the border town of Tapachula. She was with a friend who was also fleeing El Salvador’s gangs, and their plan was to head to Mexico City. From there, it would be Tijuana and then the U.S.
But when they got into a taxi in Tapachula, the driver drove them to a deserted part of town. Cristel realized they were being kidnapped. They were taken to an abandoned house, robbed and sexually abused for several days. One night, when their captors got drunk and forgot to lock the door, they escaped. A woman who found them on the street took them to a local police station. If there was an investigation, Cristel said, nothing came of it. Life in Mexico didn’t get better as she tried to recover from the attack. Too scared and traumatized, she felt she had no choice but to go back to El Salvador.
When Cristel met Daniel in 2016, she hoped things would finally get better. For a time, it seemed like they would. They moved in together, and the gang member who had been threatening her before was in jail at the time. But the period of respite did not last long.
From inside prison, the gang member started extorting her again, threatening violence if she didn’t pay. Somehow, he had found out she was back in San Salvador. And even though he was in prison, he got other members of the gang to threaten her and force her to pay the extortion.
By early 2017, Cristel’s job at the beauty salon was no longer enough to pay the monthly extortion “tax.” She was left with no choice but to work the streets at night. But life as a sex worker was no better. She was attacked by gangs. She reported the incidents to the police, but nothing happened. They were working together, the gangs and the police, she concluded. She felt trapped.
Worse was to come. In February, members of the mara murdered Daniel. He was shot dead on the street in broad daylight. He, too, had been receiving threats from the gangs, who said they would kill him if he didn’t leave Cristel.
“You are next,” a voice on her phone told her a few days after Daniel’s body was found. “You know full well you have earned two bullets for not paying us.” When Cristel went to the police to file another report, she saw an officer talking to one of the men who had been threatening her.
It was time to flee again.
A few months later, we met up with Cristel in Tapachula. Here she was, back in the place where she had been kidnapped and sexually abused three years earlier. It was the last place on Earth she wanted to be.
She stood in line along with refugees and immigrants from across Central America, the Caribbean, even some from as far away as South Asia, queuing up for a chance to persuade the Mexican authorities to give them a temporary humanitarian visa or refugee status. Cristel looked exhausted and gaunt, but she got a visa. Nevertheless, she did not feel safe.
“I need to leave now,” she said, her hands shaking, her face contorted by fear. “I saw some of the guys from the same mara that was threatening me in El Salvador. I cannot stay here.”
A young man she recognized had approached her in a park in the center of town, where asylum seekers congregate, she told us. He said to her: “If you thought we were not going to find you, you were wrong.”
As soon as she could afford it, Cristel was on a bus to Tijuana, via Mexico City. But the political landscape in the U.S. had changed since Cristel last made this journey, back in 2014. It was Donald Trump’s America now, and in Donald Trump’s America, Cristel feared that securing asylum was going to be a lot harder.
Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. was one of the first countries to begin admitting asylum seekers and refugees who were persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation. While the Trump administration has not sought to change U.S. asylum law, it has made it clear that it aims to decrease the overall number of refugees admitted into the country and to raise the threshold for asylum seekers’ “credible fear” of persecution as a basis for their asylum.
According to figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of asylum claims by people from El Salvador has been increasing dramatically in the past few years. There were nearly 18,000 claims in 2016 alone. While the number of people who have secured asylum in the U.S. increased in that period, so did the number of claims that were denied, abandoned or withdrawn. Many prospective asylum seekers and analysts have said this is because of the arduous process and the harsh detention conditions asylum seekers are forced to endure. The most vulnerable, like Cristel, often have few options but return to the danger they were desperately trying to escape in the first place.
In San Diego, after first being confined to solitary, Cristel was transferred to a cell that she shared with eight men. She was kept there for a month and a half. At her hearing, when it eventually came, she was appointed a pro bono lawyer, but her claim for asylum was denied. She was transferred to another detention center in Arizona, where she was handcuffed, put on a plane and sent back to a nightmare.
When she landed back in El Salvador, no one at customs asked her any questions. No one wanted to know why she had fled, why she was frightened or if she needed protection. Government officials gave her a little food and a soda and sent her on her way.
“I thought trans women were respected in the U.S.,” Cristel told us the last time we met up with her, in August. “I saw how a few of my friends lived, before Trump was elected. But things are no longer like that. They treated me like a parasite, like a criminal.”
She had gone back to live at her mother’s house, but the gang found her anyway. The extortion had resumed. Every time she is late with her payments, even by a day or two, gang members beat her. “I’m exhausted of being forced to pay to live. I want to leave but there’s nowhere to go.”
Sobbing, she said, “They are going to kill me.”