It was the late ‘90s when a 14-year-old boy was taken from a quiet street in San Luis, Colombia and recruited into a guerrilla group named Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
Pushed into a car moments after playing with friends, Darla Cristina González Arias’s capture is not uncommon. Many teenage boys in her area were also taken. But as she grew older, she knew her case was rare: She had to escape the militant group because she needed to transition.
In Colombia, it was the decade of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s death—as well as the decade in which an earthquake killed over 1,900 people in one of Colombia’s most economically important cities, Armenia. And it was the 30th year of the conflict between the Colombian army and guerrilla groups such as the FARC.
It was the turn of the 21st century when González, then 15, plotted her escape from the FARC. Being LGBTQ was forbidden in the group, and she had witnessed cruel punishments inflicted upon militants who were discovered to be lesbians.
“The lesbians were forced to dig trenches until they passed out from exhaustion — and then they were separated,” González told INTO.
González always knew she was transgender, but it was also sexual abuse that pushed her to risk death and leave the militant group. Her time with the group became insufferable after she was raped by a FARC commander. She knew she was trapped inside the camp with her abuser, so she began to plot her escape.
Leaving the camp was not an easy task. Being caught would result in a punishment of death. González had one chance to get it right, so she began planning to win the confidence of her commanders by becoming a model recruit.
It only took a few weeks before González was placed with an opportunity to break free — and she seized it. “They trusted me and sent me to a place [on my own] so I took another course and I managed to flee,” González explained.
González is just one of 1,859 registered LGBTQ victims of Colombia’s armed conflict. Run by the Colombian Victims Unit, the registry is used by victims of the conflict to record acts inflicted on them by members of illegal groups. However, critics say the number of affected people is in reality much higher — because many victims are afraid to speak out about their sexuality and gender identity.
A peace deal was signed in 2016 to end violence between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas. The deal was the first of its kind to include details of the persecution of minority groups, such as LGBTQ people, in its negotiations.
Of the LGBTQ victims, the most reported cases are forced displacement (73.3 percent), threats (14.2 percent), homicides (5.3 percent) and sexual violence (2.4 percent), according to a 2017 report by Colombia Diversa.
After her successful escape from FARC, González had to move between homes frequently to prevent being caught. After months on the road, she eventually settled in Cali, a city in south-west Colombia. During her travels, she passed through a state named Argelia and the villages of San Francisco, San Luis, and the city of Medellin.
Life in Cali in the early aughts wasn’t much easier for González than inside the camp. She arrived in the city, which is known as the home of Colombian salsa and for the infamous Cali drugs cartel, knowing only one distant acquaintance. On the run from the group of militants, she turned up on his doorstep with only a small rucksack. The acquaintance told González to ask for work at the local marketplace.
“I still had an athletic physique from the FARC, so I was given a job unloading trucks that transported food,” González said. “But I felt like I was facing prejudice as a gay man, so it was very hard.”
After several months of working in the marketplace, González was visited by a relative. “I was told my parents and my sister had been detained by the FARC [because of my escape] and I was scared they would find me, so I left,” she explained. González traveled to Buenaventura, a city in the department of Valle del Cauca, Colombia, and began working in a park selling Bon Ice ice lollies.
Not long after she moved to Buenaventura, González’s family members were released by the FARC. “The army had moved into the FARC’s territory and lots of people were displaced, so my family were released and they decided to join me in Buenaventura,” she said.
The family was struggling for income, so González searched for a second job. “I saw an advert in the paper, which advertised that it wanted people for male services, so from the ages 17 to 19 I started working as a male prostitute inside a dating house,” she said.
Then at age 19, González began her transition.
Wilson Castañeda Castro is the chief executive of the LGBTQ Colombian charity Caribe Afirmativo. He works with queer and transgender victims of the conflict across the Caribbean coast regions of Colombia.
In 2010 Castañeda spearheaded an initiative called “Houses of Peace,” (in Spanish “Casas de Paz”). Two years ago the project was officially completed and four houses were converted into safe houses to support LGBTQ victims of the conflict. Around 200 people permanently use them for support, with an additional 50 to 100 people using them on a temporary basis.
Castañeda’s charity started the project after seeing how the conflict was affecting the LGBTQ community and began the task of identifying the areas of the country that impacted LGBTQ people the most and how.
During his research, he found two constants.
“The first was that the war left many LGBTQ people internally displaced as they were not allowed to live freely in their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he told INTO. “And the second was that the conflict naturalized violence, so the violence towards the LGBTQ community was lost in the magnitude of the other existing violence.”
After identifying the effects of the armed conflict, Castañeda wanted to create something that would contribute to the construction of peace.
“And so the idea of a house of peace was born,” he explained. “We built these houses to become pedagogical centers, where LGBT citizens are invited to build anything from artistic expressions and cultural contributions to reconciliation.”
Overall the houses have four tasks—the first of which is to strengthen LGBTQ community relations, by creating queer and trans community leaders in the territories where they were once affected. The second is to offer cultural and artistic actions, such as art therapy and music lessons, to help channel creative solutions to the construction of peace. The third is that the houses communicate with other population groups within the community. And the fourth, to be a space where civil society can monitor the peacekeeping process.
The houses are based in Cienaga in the department of Magdalena, Maico in La Guajira, Soledad in Atlantico, and Carmen in Bolivar. They serve as training facilities and teach victims displaced from rural communities how to establish income, as many lost their farmland—their primary source of livelihood—during the conflict. Classes include training in entrepreneurship, the basics of using computers and how to start their own business using the trade and skills that they have. The centers also have psychological and legal counseling available for victims.
One user of the La Guajira house, a gay man who wished to remain anonymous, told INTO he was forced to flee from his family home after militants found out about his sexuality.
“I was scared that I would be killed or sexually abused, so I left everything behind,” he said.
The house allowed him to gain a new sense of family and belonging, alongside the much-needed mental health support, he said.
Similar stories of LGBTQ people fleeing persecution in the conflict are documented in a 2017 study released by the advocacy group Colombia Diversa, which explored anti-LGBTQ violence during the war.
The victims’ names in the stories have been changed to help ensure their anonymity. According to the study, at the time of the reported discrimination, the area of Vistahermosa was under the territorial and social power of the militant group FARC. The guerrillas settled family issues, boundaries, land, community problems, and neighbor disputes.
In April 2000, two transgender women named Verónica and Jenny were sleeping in their house in Vistahermosa. They were suddenly awoken by Verónica’s sister, who asked them if they were in trouble. That’s when they discovered that the walls and doors of the house had been vandalized with graffiti. Around six of those surfaces were painted a message: “Verónica has AIDS.”
A day after finding the graffiti, a militant — who went by the alias Smurf — forced the women to write a list of all the LGBTQ people in the area, displaying the names on a public poster in the main village square. This included people who were “in the closet” and all of the people they had had sex with. Verónica said the militants “wanted to have control over the whole LGBTQ population.”
Verónica and Jenny were given three days to get tested for HIV, and the rest of the LGBTQ people in the area were also subjected to HIV testing. As a result, Verónica and Jenny were forced to flee.
Another testimony from the report exposed how a trans woman and several gay men became a public spectacle. “In 2003, in San Onofre, Sucre, the Montes de María Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, led by Marco Tulio Pérez Guzmán, alias el Oso, forced several gay men and a trans woman, to participate against their will in a boxing match.”
The conflict claimed the lives of over 220,000 people and left approximately 7.2 million people internally displaced, according to a 2017 report on Global Displacement.
After beginning her transition, González said she had been coming out to her family slowly, by growing her hair out and shaving her eyebrows: “They told me they didn’t understand why I was becoming more effeminate. They are from a poor farming community—they didn’t know what transgender was.” The rejection forced her to support herself, and she said as a trans woman she had two options of employment: hairdressing or sex work.
From the ages of 19 to 28, González worked on the streets as a prostitute. And again she began to travel through different Colombian cities and villages, in hopes of securing a better life. She went through Armenia, Manizales, Pereira, Cartago, Tuluá, Buga, Cali, and eventually settled in Pasto, the closest Colombian city to its border with Ecuador.
It was in Pasto that González witnessed some of the most destitute conditions of the job, “I saw many girls die in the corners where we worked, it was a very dangerous job but we had no other option,” she said. González said sex workers like herself would also suffer at the hands of the police. It was continual beatings by the police that motivated her to begin campaigning and fighting for her rights, she explained.
Since the conflict, a government advisory LGBTQ victims committee has formed to discuss the wrongdoings towards the queer and trans community.
Colombia is a country divided by many things, be it geographical, political or cultural. But despite its disagreements and battles, it’s one of the happiest countries in the world. And in a display of defiance against the criminal acts inflicted upon them, Colombia’s LGBTQ victims are telling their stories with courage and with strength.
Now 32, González spent years establishing herself as an activist in the sex worker and LGBTQ community in Pasto. “I had been a victim for almost 15 years, but I did not know there were spaces for participation or leadership. As I had been in other meetings and was a visible person, I was elected as a representative of the LGBTQ community in the 2013-2015 Board,” she said.
González’s years of activism while working on the streets included organizing Pasto’s first gay pride parade and campaigning for safer conditions to prevent HIV within sex work. She was later elected as coordinator of the council for Pasto council’s board for 2015 through 2017 and remains the first and only trans woman to have held the position.
González said she decided to enter politics so she can continue to expose the true stories of LGBTQ victims of the conflict. Her family members are now her biggest supporters.
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