By Stephen Woodman

MEXICO CITY, August 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Betzy Ballesteros' brush with death came on a windy night in December, when a man in a black Chevy Suburban pulled up to the street corner in the Mexican city of Guadalajara where the sex worker was plying her trade.

After agreeing on a price, she opened the car door and sat in the passenger seat. But the client turned to the 25-year-old transgender woman, said he preferred her friend and asked if she would switch places.

"He was very polite," Ballesteros told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "So I said 'no problem' and called my friend over."

Flower Gonzalez, another transgender sex worker, slid into the vehicle, and the pair drove away.

Gonzalez was found dead in an alley three hours later, in the early hours of Christmas Eve. She had been stabbed with an ice pick.

Ballesteros keeps a faded photo of her late friend amid the candy and candles in a shrine at her home.

Five friends have been killed on the job since she left home in Tlaquepaque, in the western state of Jalisco, after arguing with her mother about her gender identity at the age of 14, she said. To survive, she took to the streets of nearby Zapopan as a sex worker.

POLICE RESPONSE

Ballesteros said she believes police do little to protect the transgender community and that no one has been arrested in connection to any of her friends' deaths.

"They don't help us at all," she said.

The Jalisco Attorney General's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Zapopan Police Commissioner Juan Pablo Hernandez said his department aims to protect all citizens.

"We have been providing sensitivity training to promote police empathy towards different vulnerable communities, including the transgender community," Hernandez said.

In recent years, legislators have passed a series of anti-discrimination laws to protect gay rights in Mexico.

In May, President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a constitutional reform to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

But advances in LGBT rights have not been accompanied by a decline in homophobic and transphobic attacks.

Mexico has one of the highest rates of transphobic violence in the world, according to a recent report by the Cornell University Law School in New York and the Transgender Law Center, a California-based civil rights organization.

The number of documented murders of transgender people rose to 46 in 2012 from four in 2008, with actual figures likely to be significantly higher, said the report in May.

The report also said transgender women in particular have suffered from a fierce backlash against same-sex marriage and other advances.

A U.S. immigration judge warned last year of "an epidemic of unsolved violent crimes" against transgender people in Mexico.Although gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation, many transgender women in Mexico are persecuted on the assumption they are gay, experts said.

"Transgender women have become a focal point for hatred because they are often easier to detect," said Maria Martha Collignon, a sociologist at Guadalajara's Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education.

In addition, laws protecting gay rights in Mexico do not extend to gender identity discrimination.

Transgender activist Ari Vera Morales said she had been studying for a degree in special education when she was derailed by discrimination.

"The school asked me to leave because I was going to influence the children and encourage them to be homosexual or transgender," she said.

Morales now directs Captive Souls, a non-profit group dedicated to defending rights of transgender prisoners in Mexico City.

Most transgender women find their appearance prevents them from working in regular jobs, said Cymene Howe, professor of anthropology at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

"It may be difficult to find work in a bank or in a retail establishment or as a food server," Howe said.

Many turn to sex work for money.

"You are afraid every time you go out onto the street, but you need to do it to survive, to eat," Ballesteros said. "You need to leave the fear to one side."

Street-based sex workers often develop substance and alcohol abuse problems and typically lack strong family networks for support, Howe said.

The Transgender Law Center report said roughly a third of Latin American transgender women are infected with HIV.

The life expectancy for Latin American transgender women is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Due to the illicit nature of their work, street-based sex workers who may be victimized are unlikely to contact police for fear of harassment or extortion, Ballesteros said.

Hernandez said Zapopan police were cracking down on extortion, dismissing officers for misconduct and improving training.

"We are trying to prevent public servants from behaving this way," he said.

Ballesteros said transgender women are also at risk from the drug cartels that demand money from sex workers on the streets.

"They started charging us every week, then every night. I didn't want to pay twice so I was attacked," she said.

The violence has helped unify and mobilize the transgender community, and campaigners such as Morales are helping lead an emerging activist movement.In March, Rubi Araujo, a prominent LGBT campaigner, became Mexico's first transgender city council member in the traditionally conservative state of Guanajuato.In May, Morales met the Mexican president when he signed a reform initiative to allow transgender people to change their gender legally without a court order.

(Reporting by Stephen Woodman, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jo Griffin. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)