Nightmare in Miami

Transsexual Christina Madrazo Says She Was Raped by a Guard in an INS Detention Center. Now She's Suing the U.S. for $15 Million.

The other man convicted was Lemar Smith, the guard Madrazo says raped her. Charged by federal prosecutors with two counts of felony rape and two misdemeanor counts of "sex with a ward," and facing up to 42 years in prison, Smith pleaded guilty to the lesser charges. He was sentenced on July 24, 2001, to eight months in prison and a year's probation.

The Justice Department refuses to comment on the ongoing investigation, but advocates for detainees fear that the government has stopped far short of uncovering—and rooting out—widespread corruption and abuse. For Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides pro bono legal assistance to Krome detainees, "It's déjà vu all over again." In 1990, the FBI was called in after detainees swore complaints that guards at Krome routinely coerced sexual favors from them. Its findings were never disclosed and, as far as advocates know, no disciplinary actions were taken. Some names of INS employees cited by detainees a decade ago come up again and again in the recent complaints, yet these officers remain on duty.

In the meantime, Krome has stopped housing women altogether. As the investigation intensified, most of the women who gave testimony were released for their own safety, and in December 2000, all of Krome's remaining female detainees were transferred to a local high-security prison called the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where some were put into solitary confinement. Amnesty International summed up the move in the title of a statement on the scandal: "Women Asylum Seekers Punished for State's Failure to Protect Them." Some witnesses to the alleged misconduct have been deported.

After she reported the second rape, Madrazo, too, was removed from Krome—to a psychiatric hospital where she was detained for two months in a ward for severely psychotic people. "Were they trying to say I was crazy?" she asks, her voice trembling. Madrazo prefers not to talk about the suffering of the other patients, but does allow how disturbing it is "when you are clear in your mind to be in a place where nobody is clear in theirs." Even at the hospital, she'd be put in leg irons and handcuffs any time she wanted to go outside for some air. At least she was able to get her hormones and the psychiatrist there was "considerate," she says. On July 24, 2000, in one of the INS's famously mystifying moves, she was abruptly released. But to this day she has nightmares about "that monster" who assaulted her. She expects they'll go away only when she feels she has done everything possible to defend her rights. "I need justice," she says. "That's all. I need to be respected as a woman."

Madrazo, 36, was born to a middle-class family in Coatzacoalcos, a small coastal city in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The youngest of eight children, she remembers a "happy and beautiful" childhood—until she was about seven and "they realized I was kind of different." But Madrazo had sensed since even earlier that "mentally I am a woman, though physically I was born a man." She was constantly bullied by kids at school, and Madrazo's own brothers tried to pound some machismo into her. Even her mother berated her: "Why do you want to wear those girlish clothes? Why do you have to move like that?"

Madrazo found some support from a local transgender hairdresser. "After school I would run away for a little while to see her," she recalls. "I wanted to be like her." But Madrazo could also see the men driving by, shouting insults and throwing things at the salon. "I don't know how she had the strength," Madrazo says. By the time she hit adolescence, Madrazo was plotting an escape from her town; she was also taking female hormones, which she could buy without a prescription at a pharmacy. At 15, she left Coatzacoalcos for good. Until she arrived in South Beach a decade later, Madrazo did not have a home again.

Mexico's larger cities were a little easier to get lost in, but Madrazo was dismissed from job after job when bosses decided that the slender, 5-7 worker with long hair and tapered fingernails was just too unsettling, too wrong, too queer for what Madrazo calls "my very very macho country." Still, she managed to save up the $500 she needed to get breast implants in Mexico City in the mid '80s.

Soon after, Madrazo joined a traveling transvestite show, and lip-synched her way across Mexico, performing at town fairs and hotels. But even this troupe was expected to dress "normally" after the curtain came down. It wasn't really a career, says Madrazo. "It was a place for us to hide and cry together, a place for us to have some kind of community." And the harassment never ceased. In 1991, Madrazo crossed the border from Juárez to El Paso and immediately boarded a bus bound for Miami. "I had heard there was an open gay community there," she says.

But Miami's gay community is one of the most conservative in the country. Sure, some white, moneyed gay men hit the clubs in South Beach and hit on the Latino boys who hang out in them. But politically, there is little contact, much less common cause, between Miami's gay Latinos and Anglos, and even less when it comes to the trans community. "Transgender Latinos face a lot of rejection from white gay men," says activist Luisa Rondón of the nascent group Miami Acción Positiva.

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