Friends of a former Vancouver resident murdered in Mexico whose refugee claim was rejected by Canada are claiming he was killed because he was gay, and calling into question this country’s attitude toward queer refugees seeking asylum.
Enrique Villegas, 35, was found dead in his apartment in Mexico City Apr 7, just over four years after his refugee claim — which he made based on his sexual orientation — was denied by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).
Mexican police say the murder was the work of drug traffickers, as reported by Univision.com, a Spanish-language news website, but close friends of Villegas in Vancouver are not convinced.
“He was sweet. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink. He was a very clean person, very healthy,” says Martina Cordero, who knew Villegas for seven years.
“The police linked the murder to drug trafficking because many of Mexico’s drug dealers are from [the state of] Sinaloa, where Enrique was from,” says Alfredo Serrano, who also knew Villegas for seven years.
Villegas was also shot in the back of the neck, a style of execution favoured by drug dealers, adds Serrano.
But he and Cordero — who spoke on the phone to Villegas every day until shortly before his death — believe their friend’s sexual orientation was a key factor in his murder.
Serrano describes how, a few days before he was killed, Villegas told him he had started “dating” someone, a homeless man without a job. Serrano says Villegas, who “wanted to help everyone all the time,” told him he had taken the man to his restaurant to help him do some work, and planned to take him to his apartment afterwards. That was the last time they spoke.
Four days later, Villegas’ body was discovered.
“According to the doctors, he was dead for two or three days,” Serrano says. “There is no chance that somebody broke in. [The murderer] had to be somebody he let in. He was living in a very secure apartment complex.”
Serrano and Cordero believe the man in question latched onto Villegas once he found out he was gay in order to exploit him.
“In Mexico it can be dangerous for people to reveal they are gay. When you say something different to other people, they try to take advantage of you,” Serrano says. “We are very sure there is a link with this guy without a job, without a place to stay.”
Despite repeated attempts, a police spokesperson could not be reached in Mexico City for comment on the case.
Majority of queer Mexicans not granted refugee status, group says
Villegas, who lived in Vancouver for several years, returned to Mexico after Canada rejected his refugee claim in February 2003.
“He felt so sad,” says Serrano. “He came here because he said he felt safe here.”
The IRB will not release the details of a particular claimant’s case, but Chris Morrissey, a local immigration consultant, says refugee claims made by queer Mexicans are usually denied.
“The majority of cases have not been successful,” says Morrissey, who is also a volunteer with the Rainbow Refugee Committee, a non-profit group offering support to queer refugee claimants.
Morrissey explains that in order to be granted refugee status, claimants must prove, among other things, that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country. Morrissey says this can be difficult for Mexicans as there is nothing in Mexican law that prohibits having sex with same-sex partners.
“Much of it depends on whether you have personally been threatened and if it would continue if you went back to your country,” she says. “You have to be able to demonstrate this.”
Melissa Anderson, senior communications advisor for the IRB, says Mexicans who are being persecuted because of their sexual orientation have the option to move to another region of their country where they will presumably be safe.
“There is a persuasive decision that argues homosexual refugee claimants have an in-country flight alternative in Mexico City to escape persecution for their sexual orientation,” Anderson says.
“Persuasive decisions” have been identified by the IRB as being of persuasive value in developing jurisprudence. Decision-makers are encouraged to use them in the interest of consistency.
‘It’s not okay to be out in everyday life’
Anderson pointed Xtra West to RefLex, the IRB’s legal periodical, which offers summaries of refugee claims. The decision to deny many queer Mexicans’ claims is based on the idea that Mexico City is becoming increasingly tolerant of queer culture.
“A well-organized gay movement has achieved a significant level of acceptance in one of Mexico’s most Catholic and conservative cities,” states a decision made Feb 25, 2005. “Though both the city and the state are governed by the centre-right and generally gay-hostile National Action Party (PAN), a political accommodation has been reached, significantly improving conditions for the city’s homosexual population.”
But Pat MacDiarmid, who also volunteers with the Rainbow Refugee Committee, says despite increased tolerance, Mexico can be a dangerous place for queers.
“In theory, it’s not against the law to be queer, but it can be quite oppressive — it’s not okay to be out in everyday life,” she maintains. “They can court danger just by being themselves.”
Queer refugees allege harassment by Mexican police
Serrano and Cordero are both familiar with this scenario, having both successfully claimed refugee status here after fleeing alleged police persecution in Mexico. Serrano says he left his country with his partner after police began harassing them and extorting money from them after they were seen leaving a gay bar in Mexico City.
Cordero left after police allegedly threatened her life when they discovered she was transgendered.
“The police can make your life a nightmare,” claims Serrano, who worked as a reporter in the pressroom of the Mexico City police department for 11 years. “They see you as a resource to get money. They threaten to tell your family or your boss.”
Although they believe they have information that could shed light on Villegas’ murder, Serrano and Cordero say it is useless to contact Mexican police.
“When they find out the victim was gay, they say gay people deserve that,” Cordero alleges.
‘Don’t be yourself, and you’ll be okay’
Rainbow Refugee Committee volunteers say the people deciding the fate of queer refugees in Canada do not fully understand the implications of being queer in Mexico.
El-Farouk Khaki, an immigration lawyer who specializes in refugee claims based on sexual orientation, says the IRB tends to be more sympathetic to queer claimants from countries where homosexuality is illegal, but cases involving applicants from countries like Mexico are more tenuous.
“We need to look beyond what social advances have been made to the overall human rights situation to see how rights have improved for gay people,” Khaki told Xtra in January. “Most Latin American countries have amazing constitutions, but that doesn’t mean [they are] enforced.”
“It has been determined by the powers that be that Mexico is friendly,” says Morrissey. “Many people who go to Mexico don’t perceive that people are persecuted over sexual orientation.”
MacDiarmid concurs, adding that some tribunal members seem to think queer refugees will be able to go back to their countries and live without incident, provided they “be more discreet.”
“It’s like they’re saying, if you don’t flaunt it, you’ll be fine. You’ve got to wonder how it’s okay to suggest to someone: ‘Don’t be yourself, and you’ll be okay.'”