Sharon welcomes us to her home in the baking jungle of Pucallpa. She wears sandals and a long dress with her hair tied back. She has finished serving dinner to her family and invites us into the yard, away from prying ears. She tells us how, at just 20 years old, she has already escaped human traffickers twice.
Back in October 2014, she was just 16 when her life changed. Her parents had begun to accept her trans identity, and she was looking for new ways to bring money home — other than prostitution. When a woman offered her a job as a cashier in a bar in Huánuco, eight hours from her hometown, she leapt at the opportunity. But when she got to the bar, they locked her up, dressed her as a man and offered her up to customers looking for beer and sex.
Violence and Slavery
“The police raided us and pushed us outside. They left me in a men’s shelter with nothing but my clothes. My dad had to go and get me out. We found the owner of the bar, but she wouldn’t pay me the salary she owed me.”
Police and judicial records of the raid on October 23, 2014, show that “acts against morality” were recorded on the premises but nothing identifies Sharon as a victim.
Sharon’s mother hugs her between photographs and asks if she’s eaten enough. The second time Sharon was taken, her mother felt she was to blame. An adult trans woman, well-known in the neighborhood, promised to take Sharon to work as her assistant at a beauty salon in Argentina. All her mother had to do was sign the travel permit.
The journey was over land and seemed to last forever. They stopped over in Lima and passed through Santiago de Chile before reaching the city of La Plata, near Buenos Aires. And Sharon’s body already had a price when she arrived: a year and a half as a prostitute to pay for the trip. She was there six months before her mother raised the money to buy her return ticket.
“That neighbor still comes back to the neighborhood, but she doesn’t say anything to me because she knows I can defend myself,” Sharon says.
The Road to Exploitation
In this report, we document the vulnerabilities that surround the lives of trans adolescents and adults when they leave their homes, whether to simply express their sexual identity or whether they are driven out by violence from their families, and how this uprooting makes them easy targets for human trafficking or the child sex trade.
The main route for this kind of exploitation runs through the Peruvian jungle to Lima, then continues into countries such as Argentina and Italy. However, the full nature of this violence eludes most victims because they believe it is the price to pay for being who they are.
Requests were sent for public information to the national police, the Ministry for Women and Vulnerable Populations (Ministerio de la Mujer y Poblaciones Vulnerables – MIMP), the Attorney General’s Office and the court system to find out how many LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) minors and adults have been rescued from sexual exploitation and human trafficking, how many were granted government protection and which cases resulted in legal action.
Figures show that in 2017 alone police freed 725 people from trafficking, the Attorney General’s Office had 1,464 cases underway and the MIMP admitted seven at-risk women. But it is unknown how many of the alleged victims belong to the LGBTI population because the government registration system is binary, meaning it only allows victims to be classified as male or female. Appealing to the memory of the officials who handled the cases is the only way to learn a victim’s LGBTI status.
Because of such oversights, stories like Sharon’s become invisible, disappearing into statistical data that does not recognize the existence of trans people.
To reconstruct these cases, we contacted the eight prosecutors specializing in human trafficking — assigned to eight regions in Peru for the past two years — as well as the 24 organized crime prosecutor’s offices, which operate nationally. Only in Lima’s human trafficking office were we able to confirm four investigations in progress involving transgender minors or adults alleged to have been trafficking victims.
Meanwhile, the central region of Junín has no records. There is no judicial process for victims such as Otilia.
“I filed the complaint by choice. They’ve done nothing, absolutely nothing,” she told us.
We went to the same square in Pucallpa where, three years ago, a woman approached Otilia to buy some food. At the time, she was working as a street vendor selling food out of a wheelbarrow. The woman praised Otilia’s cooking and offered her a job as a cook in her restaurant. She accepted and left home.
Her journey took her to the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (Valle de los ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro – VRAEM), an area known for extreme poverty and a high incidence of terrorism and drug trafficking.
“I was locked up for a year and eight months, without seeing the light of day, without a good night’s sleep. The woman fed me like a dog. It was a bar, and she wanted me to sell my body. I never did it. I refused and locked myself in the kitchen. Maybe she locked me up because I was a faggot or because I didn’t want to work. I escaped through a window. I broke it. Nothing mattered to me anymore. I told the police everything, but they didn’t believe me,” she said.
But a woman who sold lunches in a village in Junín’s Pangoa district did believe her. She gave her a job washing dishes, and after four months Otilia earned enough money to return home. Her family had already given her up for dead.
And the complaint she filed with the Junín police department? It never made it to the human trafficking prosecutor’s office.
Read more here.