Death of transgender migrant bears legacy of imperialist horrors

Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez died in custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in May 2018. New information in an independent autopsy shows that she was severely beaten while in ICE custody. | Photo: Transgender Law Center

By Cassandra Devereaux

Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a 33-year-old Honduran transgender woman, died on May 25, 2018, in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Officials proclaimed her death as being a result of complications due to HIV. A recently released independent autopsy paid for by the Transgender Law Center has added a new wrinkle that government officials left out: she had been severely beaten while in the custody of the state.

This autopsy was conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. Kris Sperry. Dr. Sperry did not find bruising on her skin, but did discover profound hemorrhaging of deep tissues and muscles that indicate that she had suffered violence. The timeline under which this violence was inflicted upon her is unknown.

ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said that “allegations that she was abused in ICE custody are false” but offered no explanation of the findings. Fellow detainees interviewed in the course of determining her true cause of death have stated that she had displayed symptoms that indicated severe dehydration over the course of the many days she suffered without medical care. She was only treated, they claim, once she became gravely ill. Marbeli Bustillo, 23, a fellow detainee, recalls that once she was taken for treatment, prisoners received no further word about her. What happened since, only agents of the state seem to know.

Hernández was one of many who had crossed the Mexico/California border seeking asylum. She reported having contracted HIV as a result of a gang rape by four men in her old neighborhood. Rape, murder and dismemberment, she said, is common there. Regardless of our own history of staggering violence and murder against transgender women of color,  she had hoped to be safe from such violence in the United States. This autopsy indicates not only that she was wrong, but that it may very well have been the state itself to inflict said violence on her. The days she spent before getting the care she needed firmly places the responsibility for her death on the very country that she hoped would be her deliverer. The right-wing media frequently raises the specter of “diseased immigrants” posing a health threat to U.S. citizens. In light of these findings, it is clear that in reality, it is migrants with illnesses are at threat by the United States itself.

To understand the migration of Roxsana and so many like her, the history of U.S. intervention in Central and South America must be grasped. In the case of Honduras, a military coup took place in 2009 against the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. The homicide rate in Honduras had already been gravely high, but in leading up to and in the aftermath of this coup, the homicide rate in Honduras spiked by 50 percent. Particularly affected have been worker organizers, LGBTQ2+ activists and enemies of the new regime. In her book “Hard Choices,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted using her power to “render the question of Zelaya moot.” She claims this was in the service of “free and fair elections,” ignoring the fact that Zelaya himself had been elected through just such elections. In practice, her use of power cemented the coup’s overthrow of the will of the Honduran people and supported the dictatorial regime which had deposed him.

Zelaya himself was a member of Honduras’ “Liberal Party.” He instituted certain progressive policies including free school lunches, milk for young children, and pensions for the elderly. The simmering ire of the global capitalist class finally took to military intervention once Zelaya took the first steps to replace a constitution enacted under the brutal military dictator Policarpo Paz García.

García had been the beneficiary of U.S. military aid to serve the malign interests of the capitalist class, and this constitution was in place to serve their hunger by enabling them to extract ever greater wealth. The “aid” given was in service of combating the threat to corporate and imperialist interests posed by the Sandinista communist government of Nicaragua and to nip in the bud any spread of communist liberation in the region. Indeed, one of Ronald Reagan’s last acts as president was to send 3,000 troops into Honduras, claiming that the Sandinistas had invaded. This claim was contradicted by the Nicaraguan government. Regardless, Reagan and the U.S. ruling class had the Sandinista government in their crosshairs for a long time, supporting the Contra militarized counter-revolutionary forces. Notoriously, Reagan sold weapons to Iran and funneled the profits to support the Contras. It has been broadly claimed that these funds were offered in exchange for cocaine manufactured by the Contras and was shipped to the U.S. in order to destabilize Black and Brown communities that were suffering under epidemic addiction to crack cocaine. The United States empire and the dictatorship of capital were certainly destabilizing Central America.

This was nothing new. Spain, upon losing the Spanish-American war, had ceded control of its colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States, and Washington thereafter directed the military subjugation of Mexico and Central America, attempting to add these to its colonies. The United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company greedily moved in, beginning what became known as the “banana wars.” Honduras saw the advent of U.S. military presence starting in 1903 when Washington directed military forces to control indigenous workers who were organizing to resist the abuses and of the fruit company, inspiring author O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) to coin the term “banana republic.”

There are many stories like this in the many countries of Central and South America. There are no countries in this region that have not known the boot of colonial military powers and only French Guyana has not been touched by U.S. forces. This exception shows that one empire has regard only for another and none for the people they dominate.

It was into this long legacy of colonial violence and domination that Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez was born. It’s impossible to know what her life may have been like if Honduras had never been a prize of U.S. imperialist powers. Perhaps Hondurans would have been among the many indigenous peoples never to develop a hatred of transgender people under colonial oppression. Maybe she never would have been raped for this difference, so fundamental to who she was as a person and to her personal dignity. Perhaps she might have thrived. Instead, she fled and sought asylum, but was incarcerated by a brutal xenophobic state. And so, she died, gravely ill and violently beaten in the care of the very powers that had brought subjugation and death to her region. As her body lies dead, the chorus of ruthless reactionaries and their agents cheer “Build the wall!” and drown out any reasoned examination of the blood on our hands. Until we rise as one to bring justice to bear, the ghosts of the dead will haunt us.

Say her name! Liberation for transgender migrants and all oppressed peoples! Revolutionary justice for Roxsana!

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