Disappeared A Vanishing on the Border
- Aired October 19, 2022, on Investigation Discovery
- Season 10, Episode 6
“On May 13, 2017, trans Latina Kimberly Avila goes missing in Brownsville, Texas, just on the border of Mexico. Soon, a rumor swirls around this small town–Kimberly may have been kidnapped or, worse, murdered by a member of the cartel.”Investigation Discovery
The episode starts with Ivon Rodarte Avila, the sister of Kimberly Avila who has been missing since May 13, 2017. Ivon is amazing. Out of all of her family members, she is the most respectful toward Kimberly’s gender and sexuality. I’ll get into it later, but just know that not everyone in the family is as respectful, no matter how well they mean.
We also meet Kimberly’s brother Noe Avila and her parents. The dad is described as macho and some of the family still deadname Kimberly as well as misgender her. But it seems like her family loved and supported her decisions even if they don’t understand the importance that language can have on trans persons.
The night before her disappearance, the Avila family had a dinner and played a board game.
The night of
That night, Kimberly asked Ivon to take her downtown to go to a club. Ivon says she had her makeup on and was dressed up and that Kimberly said she didn’t get ready like that to stay home, which honestly mood. Pre-pandemic I related to this sentiment more, but post pandemic, canceled plans are a dream to me.
For some reason, Ivon had a bad feeling about leaving Kimberly. She tried to convince Kimberly to go out the next night instead, but Kimberly waves her off and Ivon goes home. But not before driving around the block three times in hopes that Kimberly would change her mind.
Ivon says that Kimberly was happy, dancing and singing on their way to downtown Brownsville. Ivon drops Kimberly off around 2:45 a.m., which blew my mind. Kimberly’s night out started at 2:45 in the morning? I could not hang. True crime, in bed by nine, right?
The city in which this disappearance occurred is vital to understanding the story. Brownsville is on the southern Texas-Mexico border. As you can imagine, the population is heavily Hispanic and Catholicism is the predominant religion. We’re talking very morally conservative. One of Kimberly’s friend who is also trans describes Brownsville as being ten years behind everyone else.
Because of these beliefs, Brownsville is hostile towards the LGBTQ community and most trans women are outcasts in the town. Nationwide, transgender people are four times as likely to be a victim of crime than the cisgender people. That’s even worse in Texas, which is the deadliest state in the United States for trans women.
Not only is there the factor of homophobia and transphobia, but the Mexican cartel is also active in the area. Kidnappings and murders are not uncommon. It’s possible that the cartel killed Kimberly for some unknown reason.
Most of this background info is given to us by Oscar Raúl López who is the CEO of Poderosos, an organization that works to improve the lives of LGBTQ Latinos and Latinos with HIV. He’s amazing. I could listen to him talk all day and it’s clear that he truly cares about Kimberly.
When Kimberly didn’t come home the next day, her family started calling hospitals to look for her, and they filed a missing person report. Normally in these stories, the police dismiss adult missing persons initially. They will say a person has a right to disappear if they want to. But, in this case, police took the Avila family seriously. It’s not good that immediately believing family of a missing person is an exception, but that’s the world we live in.
The family’s search hadn’t turned up any clues, so they had to let the cops do their work. A reward was announced for any information and a tip hotline was set up. Police try to get phone records for Kimberly, but her phone wasn’t in service. As in, it wasn’t activated. She only used it to take pictures, so there was no digital trail to follow. This was detrimental to the investigation. I wondered why her phone didn’t work. Was it a money issue?
The search continues
Meanwhile, the family contacts the media for help. To their credit, news stations covered the vanishing, but we have to talk about the misgendering of Kimberly. The news reporters do it constantly. They deadname her and use photos of her before her transition. I found it truly offensive. We knew better than that in 2017. I wish the show had discussed this some, but no one mentions that it’s a problem.
The family hangs missing posters up all over town, but they keep being torn down and vandalized. Only Kimberly’s fliers are being messed with, which isn’t surprising to be honest. Police actually identify a man who was caught on camera doing this multiple times, but he was cleared as a suspect. He’s just an awful person I guess. Can we charge him with that?
After about a week, police received a tip that Kimberly was a sex worker. I sometimes hate even saying that about victims because it doesn’t matter what their occupation is. Victims need help and our justice system should treat them all the same. However, it almost always has to be mentioned because it could be related to the crime.
Our friend Oscar tells us that trans women who are sex workers often get into that line of work because of a lack of job opportunities, but also as an affirmation of their gender. Not only do their clients see them as women, but they desire them enough to pay them for their services. It’s not a healthy mindset, but it’s one I can understand.
Add to all of this that other sex workers are reticent to talk to police for obvious reasons. They don’t want to be arrested for solicitation. There’s no trust between sex workers and the cops, so there may be someone who knows something who is afraid to come forward.
A year after the last time Kimberly was seen, a tip came into a local reporter/blogger that they saw Kimberly leave with a man associated with the cartel. It’s not clear of this man was aware of Kimberly’s status as transgendered.
Witnesses say the man accused Kimberly of stealing from him before shoving her into a car and driving off. The location where Kimberly was dropped off was near the International Bridge into Mexico, so there’s some speculation that maybe she was taken to Mexico.
If that’s the case, unfortunately Brownsville police and Mexican police are not cooperating with each other.
The case goes cold
In 2019, police told the Avila family that they had received a new tip. They asked the family to hold a press conference to beg the tipster to contact the police again, but no one knows what the tip was. It must have been good if they went as far as a press conference, but nothing ever came from it.
By year two, police stopped returning the family’s phone calls and no new leads have come in. The LGBTQ community and Kimberly’s family celebrate Kimberly by having vigils for her on her birthday and on the anniversary of her disappearance.
At one such vigil, the DA says on stage that they want to bring Kimberly’s killer to justice. Her killer? Her killer? She’s still just missing, right? In fact, the DA had mixed up the case with another and did not mean to say that. He basically ran off the stage and never took any questions.
No one from the Brownsville PD or DA’s office agreed to an interview for the episode, which isn’t really surprising. But some good came from Kimberly’s disappearance-an LBGTQ task force was created in Brownsville.
To her family and community, Kimberly still matters.
If you have never watch Disappeared, you have to. It’s sooooooooo good. I recently discovered it (get it? discovered, like Investigation Discovery) and I’ve been obsessed with it since. If the rise of the true crime genre has taught us anything, it’s that keeping these cases in the public eye can lead to justice.
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