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From migrants to refugees: the new plight of Central Americans

Costa Rica, the southern route

A text by Maye Primera
Reading this text will take you around 37 minutes. You can also listen to it:
Narrated by Juliana Jiménez

1 Preparing for the worst

From November to January the family didn’t turn on the lights. They took turns sleeping in two-hour shifts, to look out for cars. The mother or father would go out during the day to take care of urgent tasks: selling freezers or cars, anything to pay the bills. Their 16-year-old daughter would tell them it was best if they went out together, “so they kill us all together.”

“If you get killed, I’ll be left alone,” she would say.

The father had started his own business the previous October, selling fresh chicken, cold cuts and meats in a store connected to the house. He knew it was dangerous. He had invested all of the family’s money in equipment to chop the meat. He didn’t need money to buy the chicken because he knew the suppliers. They gave it to him on credit, and he paid them later with his earnings. He delivered orders by truck or motorcycle, depending on the weather and the distance. He lived in La Lima, a township half-an-hour away from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, near the airport. He sold his merchandise in the busy commercial area of Satélite, earning well. In one day, he could earn up to 5000 lempiras, the equivalent to three minimum wages.

The daughter cries seeing photos of her friends from Honduras. The family had to flee during the night without letting friends or family know. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision.

On November 12, 2016, just over a month after starting the business, he went to Satélite to deliver two bags of pork chops when four gang members approached him. They beat him and took photographs of his license plate and driver’s license. They asked who had given him permission to sell in the area, and then told him he would have to pay $200 a week, or about 80 percent of his profit, to keep working in the area.

He had worked as a meat salesman for 20 years, for Cargill and other big food companies, delivering chicken and cold-cuts in a truck guarded by a bodyguard and four policemen that were paid under the table by the company. He was named ‘best salesman’ nine times in one year.

He thought that working on his own would mean he could sell in places that weren’t as violent as San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest number of homicides on the continent.

He closed his eyes while they beat him. He had recently discussed with Martín, a colleague, how ugly things were getting. Martín wished the gangs had never come for him–you pay them once and the next month they want to charge you a little bit more, and then a little bit more, and then a little bit more, he said, until they break you. You either pay or you die.

Martin had told him: “Nah, don’t worry, we’re a small business. Nothing’s gonna happen.”

Now the father looks at a video of Martin being killed. “Four AK-47s against a single person,” he says. “Because he couldn’t pay, because he didn’t have enough money to pay. You can’t believe it. They kill a lot of people and you say ‘it’s never going to happen to me because people here know me and love me.’”

The video lasts one minute. It begins when a gray pickup truck driven by 38-year-old Martín Rivera Peña crashes into cars parked on the street. The crash occurs in front of a health center in Barrio Medina, which is halfway between Satélite and the Chamelecón colonia, or neighborhood, where Martín lived. A white SUV stops next to the pick-up and three hooded men with bullet-proof vests get out. For eight seconds they shoot AK-47s at the front of the truck. The hooded men get back in the SUV. It seems they are about to start the car, but instead they get out to verify Martin is dead. One man shoots Martín again on his way out. The car then speeds away and disappears around the corner.

For the family, Martín was the latest in a long line of killings of friends and loved ones. In the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, where they lived, political and criminal violence had worsened since 2009, after a coup d’état against Manuel Zelaya’s government. In the last eight years, six friends of the family had been killed, along with 10 neighbors, several customers and one of the daughter’s classmates, a seventh grader. Most were small business owners like him; they owned carwashes and restaurants.

The last one to die was Martín, on the morning of January 17, 2017. The family had arrived in Costa Rica three days earlier, after fleeing Honduras. They heard the news from a refugee shelter in San José.

They left San Pedro Sula January 13 on the 5 a.m. “Ticabús,” which stops in Tegucigalpa and Managua during a two-day ride to San José. They brought $600 and everything they could fit in two bags. They didn’t know anyone, they didn’t know where to go. When they got off at the terminal, they went to a police station. They told authorities they weren’t tourists, but they weren’t common migrants either—they were running away from las maras and had come to Costa Rica because the gangs didn’t operate here. They said that they wanted to stay legally in the country. Rodriguez, the officer on duty, served them coffee and looked at their documents. He was surprised to see they had never used their passports, even though they were issued so many years ago. Why?

“We requested our passports because we were saving for a trip. Not this trip, of course. A holiday trip. We had a quiet life in Honduras,” the mother said.

The need to run away had ruined their lives. They had never planned to migrate from Honduras. They had paid off their mortgage. They never went hungry. They had three refrigerators full of chicken, two cars, a motorcycle, air conditioning in each bedroom and fans in the living room. Every week they went out to the movies or dinner.

“If you go to my colonia at 1 a.m., eight or 10 hooded guys will jump on you with shotguns, blocking your way,” the father says.

“Where are you going?” they would ask him. “What is your name?”

They would use his name to search for him among a list of neighbors who pay for private security.

In Honduras, there are five times more private security guards than policemen. Almost 900 companies offered these services around the country in 2015, according to data from the Secretary of Security in Honduras. Most of the owners of security companies are retired police or army officers.

In the family’s neighborhood, the hooded men guarded the only entrance to the colonia, separated from the nearest exit by a half mile of lonely roads among sugarcane fields, a no man’s land.

“There, in the cane fields, that’s where they go. They kill people there. But it’s not four or five,” the father says. “They’ve already killed like 80! And we live on the peaceful side of Honduras!”

The township of La Lima belongs to the Cortés Department, in the northeast, on the border with Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea, south of San Pedro Sula. Cortés is the second most dangerous department, only after Francisco Morazán, where the capital, Tegucigalpa, is located. In La Lima, the homicide rate is slightly lower than in the worst townships of Cortés: in 2014, there were 81.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants there. In San Pedro Sula, there were 110.8, according to the Observatory of Violence of the National University of Honduras.

There aren’t many places to live outside of La Lima. Security isn’t any better in departments with jobs and roads, and the non-violent half of Honduras is an inhospitable mountain. On one side of the country, criminals kill people, on the other, hunger does. Crossing the nearest border, to Guatemala or El Salvador, would have meant the same risks. So they tried to run away as far as possible, to the south. They would have liked to keep going to Panama, but they didn’t have enough money. They had enough to reach Costa Rica, to the police station where Officer Rodriguez explained to them that they had the right to ask for refuge in the country, that they needed to go to immigration authorities on Monday to formalize a request. For the officer, it was a routine explanation.

In the last three years, asylum requests from people from the Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—had increased five-fold in Costa Rica due to violence. The office in charge of these requests, the Restricted Visa and Refugee Commission, processed 389 requests in 2014. In July 2017, that number skyrocketed to 2,079. At this rate, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, estimates that the number of requests might reach 14,000 by the end of 2018.

The mother poses for a portrait in the Cenderos shelter. The family was the first to occupy this shelter sponsored by UNHCR. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision.

“Costa Rica can manage these, its legal and institutional system works. But it does represent a challenge for the authorities, in processing all these requests,” says Carlos Maldonado, a UNHCR representative.

Costa Rica is better prepared than other countries in the region to receive the flood of people. It is the only country in Latin America that has a quasi-judicial system able to provide refugee status: those who apply provide evidence, a commission evaluates the applications and decides on a first instance. Applicants can appeal if their request is denied. The system is similar to Canada’s. Although it was formally adopted in 2011, it followed eight decades of receiving refugees from all over the hemisphere and Europe, including Spaniards fleeing the Civil War and Argentinians, Uruguayans and Chileans exiled by military dictatorships. The country has received Central Americans and Colombians escaping their armed conflicts and, more recently, Venezuelans fleeing an authoritarian state that spreads misery.

Those seeking asylum in Costa Rica can do so at borders, seaports, airports, or at the offices of the Refugee unit of the General Immigration Administration. From the moment an application is filed, the applicant receives documents that allow him/her to stay in the country and access health services. After three months, they can apply for a work permit. Unlike in Mexico and the United States, there is no administrative detention in Costa Rica for people requesting refugee status, and the UNHCR has no record of any deportations. That’s because even those who are rejected receive an alternative migratory status that allows them to stay legally in the country.

From the moment they began to receive threats, the mother worked to compile articles and evidence to use in their case. Despite receiveing threats from gangs, the mother believes that their case may not be accepted. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision.

In July 2016, Costa Rica entered into a Protection Transfer Arrangement, or PTA, to receive applicants from those in high-risk situations that have been pre-screened by the U.S. government in their countries of origin. The program has the support of UNHCR and the International Migration Organization.

Through the agreement, El Salvador’s District Attorney selected 200 people, of which only eight made it to San José by March 2017.

And in 2014, former U.S. president Barack Obama implemented the Central American Minors (CAM) refugee program, to provide certain children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras the opportunity to apply for refugee status in the United States. By August 2016, the parents and legal guardians of 9,500 children had applied for the program; 700 were able to reunite with their families.

With the change in administration at the White House and after Donald Trump’s first executive actions against immigration, both mechanisms became slower and more inefficient. In June 2017, CAM was cancelled at the president’s request.

Most Central Americans who arrive in Costa Rica do so in family groups. They go straight to the capital, often by bus, with little or no knowledge of the country. The small amount of money they bring doesn’t get them very far in San José, the most expensive city in Central America.

The same weekend they arrived, a taxi driver ripped them off and charged them an unreasonable price to take them to a safe motel. The $600 dollars the family brought with them would have lasted for more than a month in La Lima. But in San José, they were broke by day four.

Since they didn’t have money, the officer who started their documentation process sent them to an UNHCR shelter that opened in January 2017. They were the first family to occupy the shelter, created by an NGO called Cenderos, funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. It’s the only one of its kind in the capital city.

The father shows his hands after a day of work. Since their arrival to Costa Rica he has taken whatever work he can get, including construction jobs, something he'd never done before. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Cenderos takes in people who arrive with no resources. They can stay for three days, a month—however long it takes them to find a place to rent.

Another UNHCR-funded organization, the Association of International Consultants and Advisers (ACAI), finances up to the first two months of rent.

With money from UNHCR, the family paid for their first house in a San José neighborhood called Mexico. The mother and daughter shared a room the size of their former closet in La Lima. The living room and kitchen were located in a hall with a couch where the father slept, outfitted with a formica table and a TV with four channels.

They abandoned their old house. They wanted to rent it to have income in Costa Rica. But when a friend of the family went to put up a “for rent” sign, two men walked by asking about the whereabouts of the “chicken man.” He said he didn’t know and that he was just there to clean.

After that, the family decided to leave the house empty, so the new tenants wouldn’t get mistaken with the family and get shot and killed. No one in Honduras knew where they’d gone, not even their family or neighbors. They didn’t say goodbye to anyone. The father turned off his cellphone, the mother closed her Facebook account, and they disappeared.

They tried to blend in. They enrolled their daughter in school. The father got a job as a construction worker. Six months after arriving, in July, he received a permit to work legally for a year. The mother started attending human rights workshops and signed up to volunteer in the shelter to help newcomers. But the more she learned about the refugee process, the more uncertain she felt that the Costa Rican government would grant her family asylum.

The approval rate in Costa Rica varies depending on applicants’ nationality. On average, 70 percent of requests are denied.

During visits to immigration and in conversations with other applicants, the mother noticed that fear of gangs is not sufficient motive for Costa Rica to grant an asylum request. The case must involve a death in the family, which her’s doesn’t.

“We have an appointment the first week of December to get an answer. I’m already preparing for when they say no,” the mother says.

In the meantime, the family has no other place to go.

2 Gigi has to leave

Gigi doesn’t want to leave, but she must. She lives comfortably in a 15-room pension above a Chinese restaurant in San José’s downtown. Everything in her bedroom is pink: the laundry basket, the walls, the military camo print of the queen-size bed where she is lying. She is watching Now and Then, a ‘90s teenage comedy starring Melanie Griffith, Rosie O’Donnell and Demi Moore. She is waiting until it stops raining to go work on the corner, between the National Institute of Insurance and Morazán Park, like she does every night.

“I go out every day just in case I need to leave next month,” she says. “I’m here watching TV and I’m not at ease. I need to look for a place to find refuge, it’s so intense.”

Costa Rican authorities denied her refugee status request in 2013, the same year she requested it. She doesn’t know why and she didn’t appeal the decision. Last year she tried to request a humanitarian residence, but she wasn’t even able to complete the process. The woman she met looked at her from head-to-toe—platform shoes, firm breasts, straightened hair, blue contact lenses over black eyes—and said: “You don’t fulfill the requirements.”

Gigi in her room in San José, Costa Rica, watching television. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

“She made me feel like I had to be dirty, raggedy, like I had just escaped from the gangs,” she said. “But since I have been here for a while, I’m different from what I was back then.”

Gigi arrived to San José in late 2011, and went straight to the corner. Her knees would shake as she stood there, thinking that someone would roll down their car window and shoot her. The January before she left, one of her co-workers in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, was killed at the corner where several transgender women worked.

“They started shooting, like they didn’t want to leave anyone alive,” Gigi says.

She dropped to the floor, taking a friend down with her, and they both survived. But the shooters kept passing by for several weeks, trying to find out who was still alive.

Honduras has the highest murder rate of transgender women in the hemisphere: 9.68 murders per million inhabitants in 2016, according to the NGO Transgender Europe. Crimes tripled with the widespread wave of street and political violence that followed the 2009 coup d’état against Zelaya. Since then, 85 transgender women have been killed in the country. There have been no arrests related to these cases.

The same night the president was overthrown, June 29, 2009, transgender activist Vicky Hernandez Castillo, registered at birth as Johnny Emilson Hernández, went out to work during the curfew imposed by the de facto government. She was found strangled the morning of June 30 on a San Pedro Sula street, with two gunshots to the head. The authorities worked with a “crime of passion” hypothesis, but even the Inter-American Human Rights Court presumed she was killed during the raids organized by the National Police. Her murder was the first of many. That same day, Valeria Joya and Martina Jackson were killed. On August 30 they killed Michelle Torres. On September 20, Salomé Miranda and Sadya Reynieri. And on October 9 and 10, Marión Lanza and Montserrat Madariaga. Since then, violence has only worsened.

Fleeing from everything: from gangs, the State and discrimination
Brenda is a Salvadoran 20-year-old. She arrived in Costa Rica in March 2016, running away from an ex-boyfriend who used to work with gang members. When she arrived in the country, she requested asylum, but her case was rejected on January 2017. She appealed the decision. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision
Before leaving El Salvador, Brenda's mother gave her this medallion of the virgin to protect her on her journey. "The hardest part is being alone, without my family, without work. So young and in a foreign country", says Brenda. Two of her three brothers live in the United States; if Costa Rica doesn't reconsider her asylum case and she has no other option, she'll look for a way to join them. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision
Brenda and two companions from TransVida put on make up before finishing the day. The organization supports transgender women in Costa Rica. They offer free classes and provide condoms for the women employed in sex work, among many other services. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision
Dennis Castillo, 32, escaped from Honduras in 2012, following harassment he received for being gay. After witnessing the murder of one of his friends in the LGTBI, he decided to flee the country. According to Dennis, the situation worsened following the 2009 coup d'état. From Costa Rica, Dennis continues working as a defender of the rights of the LGTBI population. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision
Dennis keeps a folder where he saves the evidence of the threats and persecution he faced in Honduras for more than four years for his homosexuality. "I had to give up my life there. I only brought a suitcase with very little: some books, photographs." After arriving to Costa Rica, he went several months without communicating with his family for security reasons. Integrating hasn't been easy but he's found a stable job while he continues his university studies. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

“You can’t work in the streets anymore because that would mean working directly for the gang members,” Gigi says. “If you want to have a spot, to be able to work, you have to sell cocaine or marijuana and give them money. If you don’t, you can’t work. And it’s very dangerous. Just imagine: What if you don’t make any money one night?”

For the eight months after the shooting, Gigi lived confined to her house with two other friends, receiving clients there. It wasn’t enough, so she eventually went out again. On the street, she met a Honduran woman who worked at a bar in San José called “El Rey.” The woman told Gigi that she had a transgender daughter who was rebellious and was lost, so she was looking for her. She offered to take Gigi to work in Costa Rica, where prostitution is legal.

“I got on on the bus with that woman,” she says. “And since then I have been here. I practically sought refuge myself, without anyone’s help.”

Gigi swears that the woman didn’t take a dollar from her. But the UNHCR knows that most transgender women who arrive in Costa Rica to work in the streets give money to the mafia and the police.

“We know how they lived and why they left their countries; we know the circumstances around their travels and the way they are forced to live in the countries that take them in,” says Carlos Maldonado, of the United Nations Office for Refugees in San José. “Costa Rica is a more open country, but the situation for transgender people is one of the most worrying, it’s a matter that the United Nations should prioritize.”

Gigi grew up in Santa Cruz de Yojoa, 80 kilometers from San Pedro Sula. She had an older sister and two younger brothers who constantly bothered her. Every game they played ended with them calling her a “pussy” or a “fag.” Her family insisted she would grow up to be a crazy, homeless lady who sells lottery tickets in the street, that she wouldn’t get far in life. Tired of the harassment, she ran as far away as she could: to the nearest city and then to another country.

“As a transgender person you are very independent and you find your own way,” Gigi says.

At first, she thought she could remain independent in San José. But on the third night on a corner in Morazán Park, she was threatened.

The transgender women from Honduras who worked at the plaza all lived in the same building and paid the owner—a transgender woman from Costa Rica—a fee of $20 per day for a bed and to be able to work in the park. Women who tried to move out were still charged to stand on the street. Those who didn’t pay would get beaten. After a couple of years the women rebelled: they filed a criminal complaint, went to court and settled a mutual agreement.

A wide collection of makeup and creams on Gigi's chest of drawers, in her small room in a boarding house in San José. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Around the time Gigi settled in San Jose in 2013, the administration enacted the Refugee Code of Regulations. That allowed her to apply for refugee protection, which was ultimately rejected. Instead, she lived under a "tourist" status: every three months she would go to Nicaragua to stamp her passport and come back. But the last time she left and came back, in October 2016, the authorities didn’t want to let her in, so she made a scene at the border post in Peñas Blancas.

“So just because I’m a fag I have to be miserable in my own country? Let me in, I’ll figure it out and then I’ll leave,” she said to the Customs officer.

She was able to get in, and now she is saving money to go to Europe. She has a friend in Madrid who promised to let her stay for a week while she settles in. Then she’ll figure out what to do.

3 The will to live

When Thalia arrived in Costa Rica, the majority of people waiting in line at immigration offices and NGOs were women and children. Most were Colombian and Venezuelan; few were Salvadoran. Like her, they were all seeking asylum. Some looked at her in confusion, as if to say, "What is this shit?" Others wanted to save her. "You were born a man, the devil has made you a fag," they said. "Christ can change you," repeated those who dared speak.

Thalía is the first trangender woman to receive asylum in Costa Rica. She fled gang violence in El Salvador in 2014. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

“And I would think, ‘My God, these people are fleeing to escape getting their heads blown off and then decide to lecture me on how to change?” she says. “I don't understand them. What refuge do these people seek?’”

Thalia Ramírez was the first transgender woman to obtain refugee status in Costa Rica. She fled San Salvador by bus on Easter Friday, 2014, and stopped in Managua for the night. She kept traveling Saturday, and arrived at the Peñas Blancas border post, where she requested refuge. By Resurrection Sunday she was in San Jose, waiting to begin the paperwork on Monday.

She began going by the name Thalia when she was very young, in downtown San Salvador. She was skinny and wore tight pants and cropped shirts, which exposed her ribs and navel. She would spend up to 10 colones ($10) on songs by the Mexican singer Thalia at jukeboxes in liquor stores, playing them over and over. "Triumphing / with life / harvesting / happiness / there is no obstacle preventing me / from enjoying / a new day."

“I would dance there like a crazy person, and the name stayed with me,” she says.

Thalia only referred to herself as a male when remembering her childhood: He was born across from the Cathedral of San Salvador, the son of a poor, violent, addicted mother who would beat him senseless. He stopped studying when he was 9 years old, when the 1986 earthquake demolished his school. That same year he starting living on the street. That’s where he finished growing up.

Families and evangelical groups would sometimes give her shelter, as long as she behaved like a man. But after a few months they would throw her out, because having her in the house "would cut off their blessing from God."

On the street, she had many encounters with police. Sometimes they would hit her across her face with a club, reciting the Bible. They would tell her, “You are damned. You shouldn't have been born. Do you think God listens to you? Do you think God will hear you? God doesn’t hear fags, he doesn’t love fags.”

Thalia says the worst violence she experienced in El Salvador in recent years came from authorities—from the police themselves. That was worse than the violence from gang members, who demanded fees and threatened her until she was forced to flee.

The year Thalia fled El Salvador, 2014, the Central American Center for Research and Promotion of Human Rights (CIPAC) conducted a survey among 413 police officers to evaluate attitudes toward lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people. Seventy-two percent of the police in El Salvador said that same-sex relationships were a disease and 67 percent believed that those who help and tolerate the LGBT population are homosexuals as well. Nine percent confessed they had used excessive force to arrest LGBT people and 8 percent admitted that their coworkers had attacked them.

“Remember, gang members are from the streets of one's own society,” Thalia says. “Honey, there are many gang members who have become gang members because their parents threw them out and they did not find support from anyone else.”

When using violence, gang members don’t distinguish between a transgender person or a family returning from church.

Thalia earned her living as a street vendor, selling soft drinks, cigarettes and water from a cart in downtown San Salvador. The areas where she worked and lived belonged to rival gangs. On one side, she was extorted, and on the other, accused of leaking information.

When she went to sell, she would run into the MS: “Where are you from? And where do you sell? Every time you come by, you have to leave us a dollar,” they told her.

And when she returned home, the Barrio 18 would call her: "Thalia, we want to know if you spoke, if you opened your mouth. We're going to have you under control, every move you make."

Both sides threatened her with death. She did not want to flee to Honduras or Guatemala, fearing she would find the same violence there. She would have liked to go to Europe, but she didn't have enough money. In her mind, the closest option was Costa Rica, the “Switzerland of Central America,” a democratic country without an army.

“I was ignorant and I thought, ‘maybe Costa Rica is like being in Europe: culture, people, environment,’” she says.

Thalia has HIV. Through an organization that serves HIV-positive patients, she found the phone number of a transgender activist in Costa Rica. Once at the Peñas Blancas border post, Thalia used a payphone to call the activist, who offered instructions on how to seek asylum. In San Jose, the activist gave her some pesos, toothpaste, soap and crackers, and recommended Hogar Esperanza de Paso Ancho, a special shelter for HIV-positive individuals in a rural area. She told her to be patient, that her asylum case would not be denied because Costa Rican immigration authorities know the difficult situation facing transgender women in El Salvador.

Thalía shows the antiretroviral drugs she has to take to control her HIV. The health care system of Costa Rica handles foreigners and refugees in the same way as the country's citizens. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

In El Salvador, there are no official statistics on the number of murders of transgender women. NGOs put the number at 526 since 1995, based on newspaper clippings accumulated over 20 years. But the police don’t keep track, and nor do the courts. Five NGOs sued the Salvadoran Government before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand that the murders of transgender women and men be separated from the overall homicide figure, which was more than 6,700 in 2015 alone. That number is comparable to the worst year of the Salvadoran Civil War, 1983.

Thalia provided evidence in writing: an account of all the threats and assaults she had experienced in her country that had caused her to flee. Three days later she received a card that allowed her to stay in the country legally for six months. At the end of those six months, she received a residency ID card and a work permit. Her request for refuge was approved almost exactly a year after she arrived at the Paso Ancho shelter. It was a triumph, the only thing that had turned out well in her life, she said. She appreciates it, even though she doesn't feel welcome.

“There is a lot of discrimination here,” she says. “They say things that are too embarrassing to even repeat. If someone feels like it, he'll beat the shit out of you. Yes, it's a form of violence, but not like in El Salvador with gang members.”

Thalia turned 40 in September. She has surpassed the life expectancy of transgender women on the continent, who do not usually live beyond 30 or 35 years. Most live life in poverty, condemned to hairdressing or prostitution. Thalia is still skinny, with strong arms, long hair, a thick voice and fuzz on her chin. Three years after she received her work permit, she still has not been able to get a job.

Thalía Ramírez, born Francisco Antonio Martínez, has been a refugee in Costa Rica since 2014. Although Costa Rican citizens can change their name legally to their idenfitied gender, foreigners still cannot do so. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

She earns a small amount of money collecting aluminum cans from the street and selling them by weight to a recycling company. Twice a week she cleans at the headquarters of Transvida, an NGO that helps Costa Rican and foreign transgender women, and then takes classes there to finish elementary school. She has resorted to prostitution on a few desperate occasions. In the best-case scenario she returns penniless, hungry and disheveled, while in the worst-case scenario motorcycle gangs have beaten her. In her country, she was so tired after long days under the sun pushing her cart that she seldom stood on the corner at night.

The Central American refugees that she would bump into at immigration offices and the NGOs would repeat to her, “If you want to work, change. Cut your hair, dress like a man so they’ll give you work.”

4 The (female) cop returns

Briseida has an 18-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. The girl was followed on her way to school. One day when she got home, she told her mom: "Mom, some strange people asked me my name." The girl gave them a false name, as Briseida had advised. But a week later, another boy stopped her: "That is not your name. You are the cop’s niece." The boy recited her full name.

Briseida is the fourth of seven siblings that live together in a house on a corner in the suburb of San Rafael, in Sonsonate, El Salvador. Her siblings Pedro, Santiago, Laura, Nicolás, Ricardo and Flora are police officers. Her ex-husband is also a policeman. Briseida no longer lives with him, but the gang members don’t know that.

One morning they confused one of her brothers-in-law, who worked in construction and had a crew-cut, with her ex-husband. Since the construction job was far away, he would leave at three in the morning with a small bag to take the bus. They took him off the bus, stripped off his clothes, took everything away from him and asked: "Is it you, cop? Where do you live? Are you the husband of the piñata maker?"

Flora with her one-year-old son, back in El Salvador. Flora was in Costa Rica eight months. Unable to meet their expenses while they waited for news on their asylum application, they had to return to the city from which which they'd fled after facing death threats. Flora couldn't return to the house she fled from where she lived with her brothers. She lives in her country hidden, fearful, like a fugitive. Almudena Toral / Univision

Briseida worked with piñatas and flowers. She made waterproof flowers by bathing paper in paraffin. She would use the flowers to assemble wreaths and teardrops that she sold wholesale on the market and at cemeteries. There were so many murders in Sonsonante that the merchandise would run out. A decade ago, two boys were killed right in front of her son, who had just turned eight. He had a seizure from the impact. Since then he lived locked up at home, surrounded by the protection of his mother and his uncle and aunt, all longing to flee. As soon as he turned 18 and graduated from high school, he informed his mother that he planned to leave.

Flora, Briseida’s youngest sibling, hid her trade as much as possible. She would leave her house dressed as a bank cashier, in a skirt and heels, and put on her boots and uniform when she got to the station. She did that for seven years, until one day she appeared in uniform on TV, during a holiday parade in San Salvador.

“I appeared on TV and then people knew I was a police officer,” she says.

Gang members, who control all the activity in the market, threatened to kill her in November 2016. She had just re-joined the service after four months of maternity leave. They sent a boy to tell her that she would have to buy armored clothes if she wanted to keep making it home, because they planned to attack her.

The seven siblings decided that Briseida and Flora and the three children had to flee immediately, for the good of all.

They left San Rafael in the wee hours of the morning on January 17, 2017, with no money and four bags of blankets, anticipating that they would be sleeping on the ground. A friend of the church picked them up from their house and took them to the border. They crossed Honduras by hitchhiking on trucks. When they arrived in Nicaragua authorities did not want to let them in. They spent two nights sleeping at the customs checkpoint. Finally, in the afternoon of the third day, they were allowed in. They crossed Nicaragua in the back of a pickup truck and walked half-an-hour to Peñas Blancas at the border with Costa Rica. When they arrived, an immigration officer gave them dinner and set an appointment for the next day at the immigration offices in San Jose.

For 15 days, they lived in a boarding house that they paid with borrowed money. When they had no money left, an NGO that implements UNHCR programs in Costa Rica, called ACAI, offered to pay their first two months of rent. In the meantime, they sent them to the Cenderos shelter. After a month, Briseida and Flora found a house made out of zinc and drywall on a hill of Moravia, southeast of San Jose. It was so weak it shook with the breeze.

Briseida wanted to continue working with flowers and piñatas. She thought Flora would sell them in the municipal market, and one day they would make enough money to rent a bigger house, where her five missing siblings would come to live.

Her siblings encouraged her on the phone: "Make flowers, make flowers." But she did not find wax flowers in San Jose. In cemeteries, they were either natural or made out of cloth.

Her son found a job after a few weeks, as a waiter selling stuffed tortillas. He worked from 11 in the morning to 10 at night. Every night, Briseida waited for him at the bus stop. After a month, the boy finally did what he always hoped to do in El Salvador: He took the bus alone.

But one night, a few meters from the house, two guys blocked the boy’s route. They asked him, "Where are you from? Where did you come from?" They pushed him. Briseida and Flora heard the commotion and went out to defend him. That same night they packed their things. In the morning, they deserted their house in Moravia and returned to the shelter in Cenderos.

Briseida, Flor's sister, back in El Salvador. The family decided to return because the cost of living in Costa Rica was very high. Her eldest son decided to stay in Costa Rica. Almudena Toral / Univision

It hadn’t been easy to find a house in Moravia. No one wanted to rent to a family with a baby and almost no money. Plus, the fact that they were from El Salvador didn’t help. And the shelter had given them an ultimatum: either they find housing in a month or they leave. Briseida’s daughter was not doing well in school, either: her classmates did not speak to her. One day she refused to return. Flora had gotten a job, also in a shop selling stuffed tortillas, but she didn’t even earn minimum wage. Half the money was going to pay for the two buses she had to take to get to the restaurant. They felt they had hit rock bottom; their options were the street, the shelter or a return to El Salvador.

Refugee processing continued; at least they had not been rejected yet. But they still hadn’t received a decision. It was August. Their last immigration interview had been in May. Their next appointment would be in November.

Combining Flora’s and the boy’s salaries, they had enough money to pay a month's rent or bus tickets back to El Salvador. They debated for several sleepless nights.

Briseida's son decided to stay in Costa Rica. He got a job completing contracts at a phone company and rented a room very close to the shelter where they had stayed when they arrived. On August 10, Briseida and her daughter, and Flora and her baby, left San Jose on a bus to El Salvador at 3 a.m. They were back in El Salvador 24-hours later, in the morning of August 11.

"I'm already working with flowers," says Briseida from inside her house in Sonsonate. She had already delivered two orders.


Produced by: Univision Noticias, El Faro

Text: Maye Primera

Narration of audiobook: Juliana Jiménez

Audio editing: Inger Díaz Barriga

Design: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora

Montaje: Juanje Gómez, Daniel Reyes

Ilustrations: Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons

Video: Andrea Patiño Contreras

Photos: Andrea Patiño Contreras, Almudena Toral

Map: Luis Melgar

Editing: Ricardo Vaquerano, José Fernando López

Social Media: María Carolina Hurtado

Digital production: Andrés Barajas, Paola Duque

Digital coding: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora, Fabián Padilla, Cristhian Mora

Translation and editing: Jessica Weiss, Juliana Jiménez