The terror of being trans during Mexico’s Dirty War: ‘They knocked out my teeth and broke my eardrums, they raped and killed us’

As a part of the memory recovery process, a group of trans women is denouncing the rapes the ‘white brigades’ and police officers committed between 1965 and 1990. ‘We lived through a horrible panic’

Emma Yessica Duvali, Sara Lugo, Gabriela Elliot, Denisse Valverde y Verónica López, víctimas sobrevivientes de la guerra sucia
Emma Yessica Duvali, Sara Lugo, Gabriela Elliot, Denisse Valverde and Verónica López, surviving victims of the dirty war.Mónica González Islas
Carlos S. Maldonado

Veronica López was just 15 years old when she experienced the terror of Mexico’s torture cells. It was during Mexican president José López Portillo’s administration (1976-1982), and López was a young trans woman who was working as a prostitute due to poverty and hunger. One afternoon, a group of Mexico City police officers captured her and beat her into a patrol car (then referred to as Julia) and transferred her to a prison. “That’s when the terror began for me,” she says. The agents booked her for “moral misconduct.” Although she was released, the arrests were systematic: “They stripped us naked, poured cold water on us, many of our companions died of pneumonia; others were taken out [of the cells because they were sick] [and] we never saw them again; we could hear innocent people being tortured; we lived through a horrible panic,” says López. Her testimony is part of an initiative that seeks to recover the memory of the terror experienced by the so-called dissident collectives, people who were persecuted by the regime during Mexico’s so-called Dirty War for belonging to guerrilla groups, social organizations, unions, student groups and minorities, such as LGBT people. “The [police and security] agents would kill our friends when they didn’t want to get into [patrol cars], and those of us who saw it couldn’t say anything,” recalls López.

López, along with three other trans women comrades, told her story this Wednesday at an emotional meeting organized by the Mechanism for Truth and Historical Clarification (MEH). Their testimony is part of MEH’s efforts to rescue the memory of the terror Mexican society experienced between 1965 and 1990. These were infamous decades in which the government silently and systematically hunted any movement that it considered a threat. Guerrilla groups were exterminated in Guerrero, those considered subversives were deliberately eliminated (they were thrown from helicopters in sacks into the sea or burned alive in garbage dumps), students were massacred in Tlatelolco in 1968 and the so-called Falcon Strike (halconazo; named for the state-sponsored paramilitaries—known as falcons—who committed the violence).

In addition, gays and lesbians were persecuted and trans people were viciously terrorized because they challenged the moral standards of the time. These abuses were done cautiously and with impunity, because Mexico represented itself to the world as a democracy, a far cry from the military dictatorships that terrorized the Americas. “Between 1965 and 1990, serious violations took place for which there is no excuse, much less [reason to] forgive and forget,” Alan García Campos, a member of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned. The meeting took place at the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center, which was built to commemorate the memory of the students who were murdered and disappeared in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas [Three Cultures Plaza] in 1968.

Verónica López, 58 years old, a victim and survivor of the dirty war and a member of the “Historical reparation for adult trans women” collective.
Verónica López, 58 years old, a victim and survivor of the dirty war and a member of the “Historical reparation for adult trans women” collective. Mónica González Islas

Veronica López’s story is one of suffering. She left her home in Tapilula, a small town in Chiapas, at the age of 13 because her very conservative family scorned her. She had moved in with an aunt in Mexico City, but soon had to run away because her cousins raped her. On the street and without any money, she had to turn to prostitution. “It was an unknown world for me, but I was hungry and had to eat,” she recalls. Police officers made the rounds and raided areas where transgender people waited for their clients. Violence always prevailed. In one such raid, Veronica López was transferred to the dreaded Tlaxcoaque cells, a torture prison located in the center of the capital. She was in cell five in corridor three. “They knocked my teeth out and busted my eardrums; it was very painful; it marked my life,” she says. “The agents killed and left the bodies lying around, they left you stripped [naked] and bloody. They humiliated you, stripped you and put you on display at the Diana the Huntress fountain. I am a survivor of that terror,” says López.

Denisse Valverde suffered the same contempt from the authorities. She says that trans women “were the object of humiliation and pleasure” for intelligence agents and the capital police. “We never told our stories because we were afraid to talk,” she says. “Violence against trans populations is ignored, the abuse to which we were subjected is not talked about, but they did what they wanted with us,” she explains. Valverde was 16 years old when she first fell victim to violence by the authorities; she was working as a prostitute at the time. “We were robbed (now I know that this was a forced disappearance), beaten, raped. It was a time of total impunity, a holocaust against LGBT people, and [it was even] worse for trans women,” she says. On many occasions, Valverde experienced the so-called “carreterazos,” which were raids by police officers, who violently loaded the women into their patrol cars, raped them and left them naked on the side of the highway. If the officers brought in a man accused of a crime when these women were detained, the officers forced them to have sex with him. The police shaved them and shouted that they would never be “real” women. “There were many missing comrades,” she says. “We didn’t know what to do if we saw a patrol car; if we reported it, the police station staff would tell the patrolmen and it was worse,” she explains.

Denise Valverde, 61 years old.
Denise Valverde, 61 years old.Mónica González Islas

These trans women directly denounce Arturo Durazo Moreno, known as Black Durazo, a notorious character. He was the shadowy, feared chief of the Federal District Police and Transit Department during President López Portillo’s six-year term. Durazo was a violent and corrupt man, who took hunting dissidents to heart. He is implicated in serious human rights violations and massacres. Durazo had an atrocious iron fist policy, under which crimes were committed in the feared Investigations Division for the Prevention of Crime (DIPD), popularly known as Tlaxcoaque, because the division’s headquarters were located in the city square of the same name. “My entire adolescence was spent in those cells,” says Gabriela Elliot, 66. She had left home at age 11, because her family would not accept her. “My mom was a very difficult woman,” she recalls. One night, some friends invited her to a nightclub, where they hung out with customers who bought them drinks. They slept there, and the next morning DIPD agents woke them up by hitting them. A customer at the venue was killed and the officers blamed Elliot and two of her friends. Despite their innocence, they were sentenced to 25 years in prison for manslaughter. She served only five years, but the trauma remains with her.

“We lived in a system that repressed us,” says Emma Yessica Duvali. Her life changed at the age of 13, when she arrived at school with plucked eyebrows. The principal kicked her out and claimed there would be no place for her in the educational system. “I was kidnapped at 17, shaved, beaten and raped for the crime of dressing as a woman,” she recalls. “We were cut off from all possibilities for human growth for falling outside the norm and the patriarchal and macho system,” says Duvali. As a survivor of that Dirty War, she remembers other female comrades who did not live to tell their stories. “Sulma [was] stuffed into a suitcase; China [was] hanged in a hotel.”

Emma Yessica Duvali, 62.
Emma Yessica Duvali, 62.Mónica González Islas

At the meeting, Duvali listens carefully to Alejandro Encinas, the Undersecretary of Human Rights. He says that the State intends to “build a collective truth to rescue the stories of people who were victims of rights violations by an appalling regime.” In front of the audience, the official acknowledged the State’s responsibility during that sinister period, which he described as intolerant and authoritarian. Encinas’ words resonate with Duvali, who criticizes different administrations for keeping quiet about the horrors suffered by thousands of Mexicans. “It is a disgrace for a government that speaks of openness,” she says. And then she unleashes her fury: “I don’t want a high official to ask me for forgiveness.” Her voice echoes through the corridors of the cultural center, goes out the windows and reaches the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. “All the guilty parties should be here, López Portillo, Durazo Moreno, his officers, the officer who arrested me, all those little [people]. I don’t want apologies; I want full reparations for all the harm [they did]. These [incidents] cannot be repeated in this country, whatever government or party it may be,” she says. Her indignation bursts forth next to the plaques and sculptures commemorating those murdered in Tlatelolco, one of Mexican history’s darkest chapters; they, too, were victims of impunity. This morning, it seems, Duvali also wants to avenge them, to shout that they are not alone. “I have no use for a public apology!”

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