Unbroken by Jungle, Terror and Abuse

An interactive map of Ms. Bexton's journey.JASMINE AGUILERA/NYT INSTITUTE

At age 12 in Guatemala City, she told her parents that she was not a boy. At age 16, she ran away.

Shunned in a conservative society and sexually abused, she started walking. She had made up her mind to go to the United States, where she thought she would be accepted for who she was, a girl. Back then, she was called Apner Neftaly Hernandez Polanco, but en route she became Nicoll Hernandez Polanco. She had already started painting her nails, wearing makeup and taking estrogen that was smuggled from Costa Rica.

She said she knew the journey would be tough, but she did not expect the trauma — rapes, beatings, kidnappings, ridicule. Eight years of violent encounters that left her physically and emotionally brutalized.

“My life has been a horror story,” she said.

She has legally changed her name to Ashlé Nicoll Bexton. A stubborn, tough 23-year-old, she recently gained asylum in the United States with assistance from her lawyers, and immigration and L.G.B.T. activists.

Ms. Bexton now lives in Tucson. She described her journey, in Spanish, over several interviews. It is a story that underscores the desperate lengths migrants will go to.

She keeps a natural look — hardly any makeup, simple clothes, and she will occasionally tie her hair into a ponytail. She tells a harrowing story, which she punctuates with a knowing smile.

The story starts in Guatemala City, in a poor family that could not accept that their son was transgender, a term that was unheard of in a macho culture.

She said she was sexually abused. Her mother, the only person who did not shun her, died when Ms. Bexton was 16. With nothing left in Guatemala, she walked for 15 days until she arrived in Chiapas, Mexico, 330 miles away. That is 22 miles a day, through trails hidden in the jungle.

In Chiapas, she climbed onto the roof of La Bestia, a train infamously known as the Beast or the Death Train.

As many as half a million migrants from Central America ride La Bestia annually, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Many lose limbs or die from falling off — or are pushed off by gang members who try to extort migrants. Rape, kidnapping and gang recruitment are common.

La Bestia took her from Chiapas to San Luis Potosí, in central Mexico, after other stops along the way.

“We looked like flies on a chunk of meat on that train,” she said. “But I learned how to be a humanitarian because of La Bestia.”

She said she often helped people who had been injured on the train and took time between stops to volunteer at shelters that provided health care and food for passengers.

But San Luis Potosí was her last stop. Ms. Bexton, who was 21 at the time, could not bring herself to jump back on the train after what happened next.

Ashlé Nicoll Bexton, a transgender woman from Guatemala, at home in Tucson.SANTIAGO MEJIA/NYT INSTITUTE

In San Luis Potosí, she was captured by the police. She said the officers tied her up and raped her repeatedly for four days.

“It was in a cemetery,” she said.

She chewed through the ropes they had tied around her wrists. Naked, she ran away to a nearby house, where a woman gave her clothes.

Then she took to the road again, this time by bus. She arrived in Sinaloa in northern Mexico, where she was arrested by Mexican immigration officials and was deported back to Guatemala.

“It was like I kept waking up in the same nightmare over and over,” she said. “After everything, I couldn’t believe I was back in the hell I started in.”

Immediately, she started walking to the United States again.

This time after she arrived in Chiapas, she did not board La Bestia, instead taking a bus to La Paz, in northern Mexico. From there she walked for several days into Texas, crossing at Laredo, where she was picked up by United States Border Patrol agents and sent back to Guatemala again.

And again she started walking. In Chiapas, she took a bus and crossed the border by the Colorado River in western Arizona. There, she approached Border Patrol agents and asked for asylum, aware that people who could prove persecution could qualify for that protection.

The agents questioned her for several hours and later sent her to the Florence Detention Center, a men-only federal facility in Florence, Ariz., between Phoenix and Tucson.

She was held there for six months, where she said she was often groped by security officials and was sexually abused by another detainee.

Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement that all sexual abuse allegations are investigated and that action is taken if the allegations are substantiated.

On April 22 at 6:45 p.m., Ms. Bexton’s new life began. Two lawyers working pro bono on behalf of transgender immigrants argued successfully that she dealt with persecution in Guatemala and Mexico, and an immigration judge in Tucson granted her asylum.

Ashlé Nicoll Bexton pictured, Sunday, May 24, 2015, at her home in Tucson, Arizona. Bexton is a transgender woman from Guatemala who was placed in a Florence all-male detention center after attempting to go into the U.S. She suffered abuse during her time in the center and was recently granted asylum. SANTIAGO MEJIA/NYT INSTITUTE

“I’ll always remember the exact day and time,” she said. “It was the greatest moment of my life.”

“We really just had to tell the judge her story,” Heather Hamel, one of Ms. Bexton’s lawyers, said.

With the help of Mariposas Sin Fronteras (Butterflies Without Borders), a local nonprofit, Ms. Bexton was able to relocate to Tucson. She is working with Mariposas to organize marches for L.G.B.T. immigrants’ rights in Washington and San Francisco.

She knows fighting for better treatment of transgender immigrants is an uphill battle.

“But I’m like a cat who tries to catch a light,” she said, “even if it seems impossible.”