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.

*This article was originally published by Ojo Público. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

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.


The Amazonian city of Iquitos houses a robust tourism industry thanks to its location and the neighborhood of Belén, known as the Venice of the Amazon. But it is also the first stop for many girls and trans adolescents poverty or violence in their native communities around the region of Loreto. The first leg of their trip can often only be completed after or days of travel by boat.

“K” left her native village of Tamshiyacu, on the bank of the Amazon River, at the age of 12, weeks after she was diagnosed with HIV. It was at this young age that she had to decide whether to continue living in a conservative, religious community where transgender people and HIV are believed to be the work of the devil and antiretroviral treatment is scarce.

“Finding out (she was HIV-positive) was the most difficult thing that ever happened to me,” she said.

Today, she is 23 and has still not told her parents of her diagnosis, which is why she does not want to share her real name.

According to Ximena Salazar, an anthropologist at the Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University, trans people begin to reveal their identity between 10 and 13 years old. At that age, they usually have no documents and no means of financial support, have not completed their education, and leave home because their families have rejected them or they seek a place where they can come to terms with their gender identity.

Their migratory journey is clandestine and often marred by violence, persecution, discrimination and denial of their human and civil rights.

These circumstances make them high vulnerable to traffickers and others who would exploit them.

Chriss is also from Tamshiyacu and arrived at Iquitos at the same age as K. She had not even completed primary school. She and her parents were eventually able to resolve their initial rejection of her gender identity, and they all live under the same roof. Chriss helps to care for her siblings, nieces and nephews with the money she earns as a prostitute. At 23 years old, she wants to go to Italy because she has heard that other trans women earn more money there, perhaps enough to buy homes for their families.

Carlobi Ríos, coordinator of the Trans Network (Red Trans) in Loreto, acknowledges that girls willingly go to Italy and Argentina to prostitute themselves, but most of them are not warned that they will be forced to sell drugs or to steal to pay for their travel and accommodation costs.

“It brings in more profits. And do you think they can say refuse,” she asks.

Older trans women or “mothers” often front the money for the trips. Other times it may be criminals who control several girls at a time, even deceiving them into believing they are a couple.

But, again, the Loreto police department does not identify trans victims.

Prostitution is not illegal in Peru, but facilitating or profiting from the sexual activity of a third party falls under laws banning aiding and abetting, procurement and pimping.

Peru’s criminal code also includes the more serious crimes of sexual exploitation — forcing someone to perform sexual acts in exchange for money — and human trafficking.

Victims often become dependent on their captors and ultimately submit.

“The mother feeds you or protects you from being beaten, but in return she uses your body to make money. The ‘husband’ lives off of us, beats us, harasses us, and we don’t say anything because we think it’s normal. The girls don’t think it’s exploitation, trafficking or abuse. You could make them sleep on the floor, and they’d be grateful because they don’t know anything else. We’ve entered a cycle of normalized violence,” explains Miluska Luzquiño, director of nonprofit organization Peru Trans Network (Red Trans Perú), which defends the rights of trans people.

Of all the members of the LGBTI population, trans people have the least opportunity to escape from this cycle. A 2016 survey of 118 trans women across six regions of Peru, by the organization No Tengo Miedo (I Have No Fear), found that 38% had not completed elementary or secondary school and 50.8% had no medical insurance of any kind.

Nor do they have national identification documents. In some cases, they may choose not to obtain or renew them as because they know it will not reflect the gender they identify as.

Without family, school or a workplace that accepts them, trans people survive in a world of exclusion.

In 2016 Peru’s Congress introduced Bill 790, supported by the Peru Trans Network. If passed, it would allow trans people to modify the name and gender that appears on their national identification. It would also enact measures to stop discrimination and support their access to decent work.

However, the bill has been languishing in the legislature’s Women and Family Commission since December 2016.

Lima: Transit Point and Shelter Area

Behind a church in the center of Peru’s capital city, the night keeps the sexual exploitation of trans people well hidden.

Slaves of the Sacred Heart (Esclavas del Sagrado Corazón) is the name of the church that stands less than a block from Tacna Avenue, Lima’s major artery leading to its historic center. The church’s walls also reach Washington Street, where dozens of transsexual prostitutes speak of violence and the violation rights they did not know they had.

Many of the trans people along Washington prostitute themselves without pimps because the last one who operated there was arrested eight months ago. Only by striking up a conversation with them could we learn who migrated to Lima from other cities like Iquitos, Pucallpa, Chiclayo and Trujillo in their adolescence, whether in the footsteps of an older trans person or with a false boyfriend whom they ultimately paid back for the protection or love they were promised through prostitution.

Only 15 years old, Daleska says no one is exploiting her, but she knows what is happening.

“People like me, or younger, fall in love with a man, but he only sees money. He sees that he can make money because of their age or maybe because they’re pretty. The emotional blackmail attached to our sexuality is normal because we feel lonely, because we never had affection, because they throw us out. So they blackmail you. They do what they want with you, and the only thing left is to obey and give them the money. They buy them clothes and let them live off of them.”

Daleska migrated from Chiclayo, a city on Peru’s northern coast, at the age of 13. She lives with other trans people in some of downtown Lima’s old mansions, in cubicles measuring two square meters for $10 a night. The only thing she has from her past are two childhood photographs.

In its report Trafficking in Persons, the US State Department warns that LGBTI people — especially those who are trans — are susceptible to every type of vulnerability linked to sex trafficking. Since 2015 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has recommended improving victim identification procedures and adapting assistance services to meet the needs of such vulnerable groups.

But in Peru, the Investigative Division Against Human Trafficking (División de Investigación contra la Trata de Personas – DIVINTRAP) does not investigate who belongs to the LGBTI population, nor does it keep tabs on where they are.

“We’re waiting for this vulnerable population to come to us in order to know what problems they’re going through and, from there, establish different strategies. We have trained personnel, and we ask them to trust the police,” stated DIVINTRAP head Colonel Antonio Capa.

But Luzquiño maintains that the only relationship the trans population has with the Peruvian authorities — especially the local police — is violence. In the most extreme cases, water hoses have been used to throw them out onto the streets, beat them, or abandon them in vacant lots. They have also insisted on treating trans women as males and made fun of them when they accuse their partners of assault.

The rejection of trans people by local authorities is so severe that 11 of Lima’s 43 municipalities include the “eradication of homosexuals” or “transvestites” in their public security plans.

The Attorney-General’s Office is the only institution in Peru to have included the LGBTI option in its registration system, when entering data about the victim of a crime. For Para Rosario López Wong, the head of the Assistance to Victims and Witnesses Bureau (Udavit), that is where the invisibility of these victims begins. Reversing this process is crucial; not only for trans people but the entire LGBTI community, and will have no effect if other institutions do not follow suit.

“We need to show that we can apply drastic sanctions to traffickers who take advantage of the discrimination and exclusion suffered by transgender people. This is a challenge because it is difficult for this group to understand that their dignity has been violated, “explains Wong.

The current National Plan against Trafficking in Persons 2017-2021, dedicates, for the first time, a few paragraphs to the LGBTI population. It recognizes their vulnerability and the difficulty they have in “accessing protection and care services, creating a double victimization.”

The plan states that LGBTI people have full rights as victims of human trafficking but includes no plans or measures to ensure this happens.

“How do you denounce the disappearance and exploitation of a trans person?” asked Luzquiño. Any missing persons poster would likely bear a name and photo that do not correspond to reality. In most cases, there is no identity document to track them. Relatives may not be worried about their absence, ignoring the fact that they are potentially trapped in sexual slavery.

“We practically do not exist,” the activist replied. These are silent victims, yet authorities expect them to speak up first.

*This article was originally published by Ojo Público. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

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