Honduras: ‘They have silenced us completely’
Human rights activists, journalists and LGBT citizens are regularly targeted by right-wing killers
Colectivo Lesbico, Gay, Trans y Bisexual protest against police abuse in Tegucigalpa ahead of the celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images
Like many teenagers her age, Ana Maritza Soto swipes through her smartphone looking at photographs. But these images could easily be stills from a horror movie, depicting a lifeless body lying in the centre of a residential area.
Ana (16) says that when they found her father, his throat had been slit and intestines lay scattered on the road.
She flicks to the final photo. It’s a close-up of Luís de los Reyes Marcia, his deathly pale face staring blankly at the camera with his innards strewn over his body.
Dilma Consuelo Soto, Ana’s mother, doesn’t need to look at the images to remember the murder of her husband. Only two weeks have passed since his death, and the shock is still fresh in her mind.
Soto, like her husband, is an indigenous human rights defender from the Tolupán community of San Francisco de Locomapa in northern Honduras. She speaks quietly as she recounts the tale of her husband’s death. Even though her voice is heavy with grief, her words are filled with a sense of strength and determination.
“The problem is we can’t speak out. They [the police] have silenced us completely. Even now that they’ve killed my husband, we haven’t reported the assassination because of fear.
“I cannot understand how people can die but life continues as if nothing has happened. The question is, where are the authorities to protect us?”
Continue the battle
Despite the countless death threats, Soto says she will continue the battle with her fellow land defenders to protect the Tolupán territory from mining and illegal logging.
“There is an ideology of domination and violence in this country. It’s all connected with being constantly surrounded by weapons. But we have to keep fighting. Even though we keep dying, we have to keep fighting.”
Soto is just one of the many human rights defenders in Honduras who put their lives on the line by fighting for a cause they believe in. Spokespersons for minority groups such as women, children and LGBT are often brutally punished for exercising their right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and calling for an end to human rights abuses.
Honduras is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with a national homicide rate of 79 per 100,000 people. (The Republic of Ireland has 1.2 murders per 100,000 people).
Since the military coup of 2009 that ousted leftist president Manuel Zelaya, there has been a spike in acts of violence against journalists, human rights defenders and political activists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 20 journalists have been killed in Honduras since 2009.
In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said it was “deeply concerned” about the rising number of killings of Honduran people from the LGBT community.
According to Sentidog, a watchdog for LGBT rights in Latin America, 282 LGBT people living in the “northern triangle” of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) were murdered between 2009 and 2014. Of these, 168 died in Honduras.
Nahomy Otero became an LGBT human rights defender after she was attacked while working as a sex worker in San Pedro Sula, which is known internationally as being the most violent city in the world.
“We were not allowed to walk openly on the streets of our city, to go into shops, to visit a mall,” says Otero, who is a transgender woman.
“Everywhere we go we are despised and discriminated against,” she says, adding that she and other transgender people in Honduras suffer “harassment, threats, hate attacks, rape, brutal beatings and other form of torture, many of which have been committed by police officers and other public security agents.”
Otero, who was almost killed in a brutal stabbing, has been offered protection measures by the state, but insists they are worthless. She says the sharp rise in drug-trafficking and gang violence in Honduras has greatly affected the safety of transgender women.
She says transgender sex workers are often forced to sell drugs to their clients, adding that at least six transsexuals have been murdered in Honduras over the past two years.
Despite the risks of being openly transgender in Honduras, Otero says she will never leave the country.
“I am helping people get access to anti-retroviral medicine to control HIV. I am helping young gays, lesbians and transsexuals by explaining their rights so they don’t have to put up with this abuse. If I give up this work because I am afraid, who else will take over?”
Indyra Mendoza Aguilar from the feminist lesbian organisation Cattrachas, says LGBT people are faced with campaigns of hate and discrimination from the national media.
“In Honduras, the media has been commercialized with hatred,” she says, adding that news stations make money by carrying out phone-in surveys asking the public whether same-sex marriage would destroy the values of society.
“If the media is against you, the church is against you, the president is against you,” she asks, “how can you find the strength to vocalise your point of view and look for support?”
Homosexuality is not a crime in Honduras, but in 2005 the constitution was amended to ban same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Mendoza says the amendment means that children of same- sex couples, like her own daughter, have become invisible.
“My daughter doesn’t have a right to a family because her two mothers can’t get married. In the eyes of the law, she isn’t connected to me through blood or surname.”
In 2014, Amnesty International reported that “many human rights defenders, owing to their fear of the police, refrain from asking for protection because they think that contacting the police exposes them to a greater security risk and potential reprisals.”
Nahomy Otero, who now works in a shelter for people living with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, says human rights defenders in Honduras need the support of charities to continue their work
“I have been doing this work for 15 years and I don’t want to leave Honduras,” Otero says. “We’re grateful to the international community, who are willing to hear our story and enable us to live a life free from fear. I refuse to give up now.”
This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund