At approximately 8 a.m. on the morning of March 16, authorities in Santiago discovered the lifeless body of a transgender prostitute. Family members later identified her as 54-year-old Michelle Carrasco – or "Chela," as her friends called her.
Carrrasco, her face completely disfigured, had been left in a makeshift pit, presumably by the person who at some point during the previous night brutally attacked her while she worked the road to Melipilla, waiting for clients in Santiago’s Lo Espejo district.
Two weeks later, her family and friends are still trying to cope with the horrific murder. "We’re doing so badly, just bad," says Zujeiy Carrasco, the victim’s niece. "You know where she was working, right? It’s just that she didn’t have any other choices," she adds, trying unsuccessfully to hold back the tears.
Adding to the tragedy is the fact that Carrasco’s death came just a week-and-a-half after a transgender person named Moira Donaire González was also murdered, in Viña del Mar, Region V. González, 30, died on March 5 after being stabbed five times by a street vendor.
"We’re just indignant. To put it simply, today in Chile the State is not guaranteeing a basic human right for a certain sector of the population, and that’s the right to life," says Rolando Jiménez, president of the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Freedom (MOVILH).
"Ultimately, that right isn’t guaranteed because the transgender population, in this society, is forced to support itself in the sex trade. For the people in that line of work, it’s a context that is absolutely precarious and dangerous and in which they’re vulnerable."
According to MOVILH, Chile’s leading sexual minorities’ advocacy organization, the murders of Carrasco and González are by no means isolated cases. In fact, since just 2002, the pro-gay rights group has recorded a total of 11 such crimes.
Last August a transgender sex worker named Vivian Cuevas Henriquez, 30, was beaten to death in Valparíso, Region V. Four months earlier, 29-year-old transvestite Andres Navarrete Collao was murdered in the town of Paine, just south of Santiago. In November 2004, in Calama, Region II, a 32-year-old transvestite named Andrea Sanchez was attacked and killed by a man she’d just sold her services to for US$3.75. After making his bail payment of approximately US$925, Sanchez’s alleged killer – a man named Victor Vicencio Marin – was released from jail. He has yet to serve time for the crime.
"As he was being released, the guy turned to journalists and said, ‘turns out it’s cheap to kill a faggot,’" Jiménez recalls.
What’s common in all of these cases, the MOVILH head explained, is just how vulnerable the country’s transgender population is, particularly as individuals so often turn to the sex industry as their only available recourse.
"When they begin to develop as people, and begin to assume sex characteristics that don’t match up to their biological sex, they’re punished in their homes, they’re attacked in their homes and in their schools. Eventually they drop out of school," says Jiménez. "The vast majority of them don’t even finish their basic schooling. Many can barely read and write. And so in terms of skills, they have no chance of being accepted into the normal labor market."
Chela Carrasco was a case in point. Three years ago the deceased sex worker participated in a pair of classes offered by MOVILH: one a drug prevention program, the other a technical course in tailoring and clothing design. In the end, though, Carrasco returned to prostitution.
The other common thread in all of these murders, according to Jiménez, is a persistent backdrop of impunity. While police and the courts have resolved some of these cases, there is nevertheless the impression first; that authorities are not sufficiently vigorous in tackling these types of cases, and second; that those murderers who are charged rarely receive sentences that correspond to the gravity of their crimes.
A particularly emblematic case was the 2002 murder of trans-rights activist Amanda Jofre, allegedly at the hands of Winston Michelson del Canto, a known drug dealer and frequent client of transgender prostitutes. In July 2003, a Santiago Court of Appeals unanimously acquitted del Canto.
"We’ve always said that in this country, murderers have better reputations than faggots," said Juana Iris Rubio, head of a transgender organization called TravesNavia. "It sounds like an ugly and very strong word, but sometimes you have to spell it out in Chilean."
Rubio, a personal friend of Carrasco, has been closely involved over the past two weeks in pushing for a proper investigation into the March 15 murder. She’s also been in direct contact with Carrasco’s family, not only trying to offer support, but also encouraging them to stay on top of the case.
"Ultimately, it has to be Michelle’s direct family that handles all the legal paperwork. That’s what we’re doing now, giving them strength so they don’t get tired, and so they don’t stop pushing for a legal resolution," says the TravesNavia president.
Zujeiy Carrasco, for one, appears committed to just that. "We want justice, nothing else," she says. "We want to pursue this. We want them to find whoever did this. We just want justice."
Contact Benjamin Witte at email@example.com