Originally published by LA TImes
THE MURDER OF SHERILL YUBISSA HERNÁNDEZ MANCÍA explains why Central American women are fleeing north.
Ms. Hernández was a 28-year-old agent for the Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal, or ATIC, Honduras’s F.B.I., the agency charged with investigating the killings of women. She was having an affair with Wilfredo Garcia, who was the head of the agency’s office in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city. According to people involved in the case, at some point Ms. Hernández seems to have come to believe that instead of working to take down MS-13, the nation’s largest gang, her lover was married to the sister of an MS-13 leader, and was aiding the criminals.
On June 11, 2018, Ms. Hernández was found dead in her bed. Karla Beltrán, who works at the San Pedro Sula morgue, told me that in an unprecedented move, ATIC barred Forensic Medicine officials, along with the police and the prosecutor, from the crime scene. ATIC officials went alone and pronounced the death a suicide.
But when Ms. Hernández’s body arrived at the morgue, Ms. Beltrán and her colleague, América Gómez, saw the obvious. Yes, a bullet had shattered her cranium. Yes, photos taken by ATIC showed her lying on her bed, holding a pistol to her temple. But there was no gun residue on her hand. Her tongue was sticking out, and there was froth around her mouth, signs of asphyxiation. There were two marks under her chin, suggesting she had been strangled by someone expert in cutting off oxygen without leaving bruises. Blood had defied gravity; instead of flowing toward the back of her head, it had poured over the front of her pink pajama top and down shorts emblazoned with the word “love.” The crime scene photos showed that Ms. Hernández’s cellphone had changed location three times while the scene was being “investigated,” finally landing in a jar of water.
The morgue leaders announced that month that Ms. Hernández had been murdered. Soon after, they realized they were being followed and got multiple warnings that ATIC had a team of “sicarios” — assassins. In August, along with the director of Forensic Medicine, Semma Julissa Villanueva, and another colleague, they petitioned the Honduran government for protection and were assigned police officers to take them to and from work. But they still feel like sitting ducks. Dr. Villanueva has been granted a visa to travel to the United States, and Dr. Gómez and Ms. Beltrán have applied for asylum.
Mr. Garcia, who did not respond to a request for comment, has been reassigned to an administrative post pending an investigation into the death, said a spokesman for the Public Ministry in San Pedro Sula. Nearly 10 months later, no one has been charged. “We want to be emphatic and forceful that no one in ATIC belongs to a criminal group nor are they tied to the criminal acts you refer to,” the spokesman said.
But Dr. Villanueva says she is afraid, adding that she is certain that Ms. Hernández “was executed and they are trying to cover it up.”
Police and soldiers investigating a crime scene on the outskirts of the López Arellano neighborhood of Choloma.
“It’s so rotten,” said Karol Bobadilla, the head of investigations for the nonprofit group Women’s Forum for Life in Honduras, when I met her at her office. How, she asked, can the leaders of an agency entrusted with investigating women’s deaths be killing women themselves?“She was executed and they
are trying to cover it up.”
PRESIDENT TRUMP CALLS IMMIGRANTS “CRIMINALS” — drug dealers and rapists intent on plundering America. But the truth, as I saw so clearly over a monthlong reporting trip in Honduras, is that migrants are fleeing a society controlled by criminals.
President Trump keeps threatening to shut off the southern border to prevent Central Americans from crossing. On March 29 he announced he was halting aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — about $450 million a year that we now spend on strengthening civil society and chipping away at the power of gangs and drug cartels. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, defended the decision by arguing that the money made little difference: “If it’s working so well, why are the people still coming?”
Well, some of them are coming because they don’t want to die. This is particularly true of women, who make up a greater proportion of border crossers every year.
This latest announcement comes on top of moves by the Trump administration to bar victims of domestic violence from applying for asylum. In June, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, sought to reverse a Board of Immigration Appeals decision from 2014 that added domestic violence to the list of horrors that could qualify someone for asylum. In December,a federal court ruled that he didn’t have the authority to do that. But the Trump administration has persisted and is appealing the decision.
It’s wrong to turn our backs on vulnerable women under any circumstances, but especially when they are coming from countries like Honduras, where the government is doing virtually nothing to protect them and is sometimes itself the predator.
Honduras is one of the world’s deadliest places to be a woman — a2015 survey ranked it in the top five countries, with El Salvador and Syria. According to official statistics, 380 Honduran women were murdered last year (slightly fewer than in recent years), in a country with roughly the population of New York City. But no one believes the government’s numbers. The number of women who have “disappeared” continues to rise.
Unlike in much of the world, where most murdered womenare killed bytheir husbands, partners or family members, half in Honduras are killed by drug cartels and gangs. And the ways they are being killed — shot in the vagina, cut to bits with their parts distributed among various public places, strangled in front of their children, skinned alive — have women running for the border.
Understanding what is going on in Honduras is crucial to understanding, and solving, what is going on at the United States border, where 268,044 migrants were stopped in the first five months of fiscal 2019, nearly twice as many as in the same period last year. A growing proportion — half — were families with children.“They cut off everything. They strip
them down, like they are a chicken.”
THE STATE OF CORTÉS is by far the worst.
Nearly one in three women murdered in Honduras in 2017 were killed here. And this city, Choloma, is probably the deadliest.
At least 262,000 people live in Choloma, which sprawls across hills and rutted roads on both sides of Honduras’s main north-south freeway, a half-hour from Central America’s largest port. Starting in the 1980s it became a hub for tax-free industrial parks where American, Canadian and Korean textile factories produced products for Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Nike and Adidas. Women streamed into Choloma for a rare commodity in Honduras — jobs.
It is also a hub for the drug trade; product moves through here on its way from Colombia to the United States. Most neighborhoods are controlled by gangsor criminal organizations — 18th Street, MS-13 or La Rumba, named after a disco in Choloma’s most troubled area, López Arellano. La Rumba has paid for trash pickup there, paved the main street (in part to enable faster getaways) and bribed the police. It also kills women. One night, a woman at La Rumba’s disco said it was nice but another club was nicer. She was found dead the next morning, shot in the mouth.
Last year, 23 women were murdered in Choloma; some say the toll is a third more. But it’s the growing cruelty with which women are killed that has most frightened women here.
In 2017, 41 percent of women and girls killed in Honduras showed signs of mutilation, disfigurement and cruelty beyond what was needed to kill them, according to the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
Thanks to the contra war, when the United States secretly funded right-wing militia groups in Central America, there are an estimated 1.8 million guns in Honduras. And yet one in 10 female murder victims are strangled to death.
The sadism is the point. It sends a message — to other women, to rival men — that the killer is all powerful and never to be trifled with.
It’s about machismo — the culture of which goes back to colonial times, when conquering Spaniards came without wives and treated the indigenous like slaves. Today, in a world ruled by gangs and narco groups, it’s about engendering maximum terror in your enemies, and you do that by showing how macabre you can be in the way you torture or kill. Honduras is locked in a war of grisly one-upmanship, and women’s bodies are the battlefield.
Melania Reyes, a leader of a women’s aid group called the Women’s Movement of the Neighborhood of López Arellano and Surroundings, has spent decades fighting against domestic violence but feels stunned by the new brutality. “They cut off everything,” she said. “They strip them down, like they are a chicken.”
Maria Luisa Regalado, the director of the Honduran Women’s Collective, another local group, told me, “What we are seeing in Choloma has never been seen before.”“She didn’t let them. So they killed her.”
MEN, OF COURSE, STILL MAKE UP A VAST MAJORITY of murder victims, largely because they are more likely to be involved in gang conflicts or targeted for recruitment. But torture and mutilation aren’t as routine an aspect of these killings as they are for women.
Women and girls are also increasingly being recruited by gangs and criminal organizations to sell drugs in Honduras. An estimated two in 10 gang members in the San Pedro Sula area are now female, something unheard-of not long ago. The gangs believe that men are more likely to buy drugs from a flirting woman and that the police are less likely to target her.
Some join willingly; since 2012 many of Choloma’s factories have left for lower labor costs in Nicaragua, and people are desperate for work. There’s such a glut of workers that factories advertise they won’t hire anyone over 35.
Buses ferry workers to and from their jobs at a clothing factory in Choloma.
Others are forced into it. Girls tell Ms. Reyes they are warned, “If you don’t get into it, we will break you.”
But they are broken anyway. They are killed for not meeting drug sales quotas, for not paying back money they owe to the cartel, for spurning the advances of a criminal or because they are the girlfriends of criminals who tire of them. “They see women as property,” Ms. Regalado said.
Of the 115 women killed in Choloma between 2013 and Oct. 2018, half were 20 or younger, according to the Violence Observatory.
Ms. Reyes ticked off some of the girls murdered in López Arellano last year: a 14-year-old who sold lottery tickets and was abducted by a drug seller who raped her and shot her in the head five times; two 15-year-olds killed by MS-13 gangsters when they resisted an order to sell drugs; two 17-year-old cousins whose breasts and buttocks were cut off before 18th Street gangsters shot them in the head.
Katherine Nicolle Bonilla Carranza, just 14 years old, was another victim. She is buried under an almond tree in a cemetery near the apartment of her mother, Norma Adelí Carranza. Ms. Carranza sobbed as she described what happened on Dec. 19, 2017. Nicolle had been helping her mother wash clothes. She said she would be back in 10 minutes; she just wanted to chat with her friends at the corner. “Be careful,” Ms. Carranza told her. She was shot five times in the head right next to the Catholic church down the street, probably by gangsters. “They wanted to take her,” she told me, her face contorted by grief. “She didn’t let them. So they killed her.”
Denis Daniel Flores Carranza, 9, at the grave of his sister, Katherine Nicolle Bonilla Carranza, who was murdered in 2017.“Do I have to bring you a corpse
for you to actually do your job?”
SOMETIMES THE DEATHS HAVE NOTHING TO DO with the gangs. But the impunity for violent men is the same.
Heidy Hernandez’shusband, Marcio Amilcar Mateo, was an alcoholic and a control freak. She says she needed his permission to even step outside their home. After he slashed her lip with a broken rum bottle, she says, her sister insisted she report the abuse to the Choloma police, but they did nothing. “Do I have to bring you a corpse for you to actually do your job?” her sister said to them.
According to Ms. Hernandez’s account, Mr. Amilcar made $81 a week and brought home less than that. One night, the cupboards bare, she slipped out to get food at her aunt’s a few blocks away. She ran into her husband, drunk. “You dog!,” he said. “Begging food from strangers!” He locked his wife inside and ordered her, their 3-year-old son, and their 6- and 7-year-old daughters to their knees.
He grasped Ms. Hernandez’s hair, yanked her head back and put his machete to her throat. “I’m going to kill you and your children,” he said. “If you aren’t with me, you won’t be with anyone.” He finally put the blade away with a warning: Don’t go to the police.
One day she got home half an hour late from her father’s house. “Who were you with?” he demanded. He pulled the machete out from under their bed and swung the blade into the back of her legs. One of their daughters, Nadia Mabel, then 8, started screaming: “Papa! Don’t kill her!”
At 28, Ms. Hernandez awoke from surgery with her right leg amputated below the knee. Most of her left foot was gone. Her heart had stopped twice.
Heidy Hernandez lost her feet and part of her right leg after her husband attacked her with a machete.
Mr. Amilcar, who had swung his machete into his wife’s legs 10 times, was charged with inflicting “light lesions,” carrying a sentence of 15 years. Only after their oldest daughter visited him in jail, and heard him vow, “When I get out I’m going to kill her,” did a judge add attempted femicide charges and tack on 20 more years.
“My dad took off her feet,” Nadia Mabel told me, nervously. “I thought he was going to kill her.”“You like getting hit, don’t you?”
IN 2013 THE HONDURAN GOVERNMENT PASSED A LAW imposing harsher sentences for femicides — gender-motivated killings in which the perpetrator was a partner, a family member, an ex, or had committed domestic violence; in which sex preceded the death; or in which the victim’s body was degraded or mutilated. The label can increase a homicide sentence to 30 or 40 years. But almost no one is actually charged with femicide. The Violence Observatory says that more than 60 percent of women’s murders are femicides, but the charge has been used only 33 times — during a period when 1,569 women and girls died violently.
Domestic violence laws, which didn’t exist here until 1997, also remain weak. Beating someone the first time is a “fault,” not a crime. A court or prosecutor’s office can issue restraining orders for up to six months, but the police largely don’t enforce them. Sometimes the police are so afraid to even go to a violent neighborhood that they tell the woman she has to serve her abuser the restraining order on her own. If you put a machete to your wife’s throat, all the police can do is lock you up for 24 hours, and they often don’t even do that on weekends, said Saida Martinez, a leader of the López Arellano women’s group.
Choloma women are asking for help: Each year, about 1,400 seek out the Choloma Women’s Office, a city agency that helps women with their domestic violence cases, and another 500 go directly to Choloma’s courts. Some 5,000 went to San Pedro Sula’s four judges last year for domestic violence issues.
Melania Reyes speaking with a woman seeking help at the Women’s Movement of the Neighborhood of López Arellano and Surroundings.
But their first recourse, the police, are often less than helpful. Women tell me some of their responses: You like getting hit, don’t you? Why don’t you resolve it between your bedsheets? Maybe you didn’t give him what he needed last night? “They mock them,” Ms. Reyes said.
Elena Garcia, who is 38, asked me not to use her full name. She told me what happened to one of her friends three years ago, after she went to the police, covered in bruises. She got a restraining order against her partner and was told to deliver it herself. She disappeared that day and was later found burned, inside a bag, on the banks of the Chamelecón River.
Last Jan. 27, Norma Lilian Ávila Hernandez, a 29-year-old hair and makeup stylist, had an argument with her husband, Hugo Daniel Cruz Cabrera, 38, over her wearing makeup. According to Ms. Beltrán at the morgue, who also worked on this case, he grabbed a machete and started to cut grass around their home, looking at her menacingly. Ms. Ávila went to her local police station. Two officers were dispatched to look into her case, but they ignored their orders. When she returned to her house, her husband strangled her to death, police officials said. There is a warrant out for his arrest.
Women like her have no place to hide: There are no domestic violence shelters in Choloma or nearby San Pedro Sula. The nearest is a six-hour bus ride away.“That man is free, he will kill us all,
and the authorities will do nothing.”
EVEN AFTER THEY ARE KILLED, most women don’t get any justice. Nine in 10 murders of women never go to court or result in a sentence. Nearly half of these murders happened in public.
I spoke to one woman, Sonia Fuentes, who survived being shot 12 times by her ex in front of a factory just as a shift was ending and workers were pouring out the gates.
By chance, two police officers happened to be turning down the street right as it happened. If they hadn’t, who knows if he would ever have been charged.
Sometimes, even when prosecutors and police know exactly who killed a woman, they still don’t arrest him.
Glenis Vanessa Ramirez Hercules was 17 when she met Jairo Mauricio Claro Burgos, and 26 when he killed her, her family says. He was with 18th Street, and though he beat her, she didn’t trust the police to help. Mr. Claro had a cousin on the Choloma police force, and most of the officers were too afraid to even enter the neighborhood, Ms. Ramirez’s aunt, Danelia Hercules, told me. When they drive here, they’re always blaring their sirens or honking their horns, she said. “It’s like they are announcing to the gangs: We’re coming!”
Eventually Ms. Ramirez moved out and rented her own room nearby, but one night, on Oct. 30, 2016, she returned to find her husband waiting.
A local drug addict later told Ms. Hercules that Mr. Claro had strangled Ms. Ramirez in front of their three young sons. He broke her legs so that he could stuff her into a nylon bag used to sell dried corn. Two neighbors heard her cry for help, but the owner of the house said he thought it was just another fight, and all were afraid to call the authorities.
Ms. Ramirez’s family noticed she was missing the next day. They believe Mr. Claro hauled the sack out Sunday night and left it, covered in grass and trash, on the side of the road a few blocks away. On Monday, their boys told their father that some were accusing him of killing their mother. Mr. Claro bolted. That’s when the eldest, who was 9, dared to tell another aunt that he had been warned by his father that if he told anyone what he had witnessed, he would “do to me what he did to my mom.”
Irma Rosa Hercules’s daughter Glenis was 26 when she was murdered by her husband.
When Ms. Ramirez’s mother went to file a missing-person report, she said she learned that Mr. Claro’s father had already gone to the police, to report that his son had confessed the murder to him.
Tuesday morning a young man collecting firewood found the 110-pound sack with Ms. Ramirez’s decomposing body.
At a family wake that night, someone spotted Mr. Claro lurking nearby, and two dozen men gathered their guns and machetes to kill him, because they were sure the police would not pursue him. But he escaped.
Denis Ávila Maradiaga, head of the homicide unit at the Directorate for Police Investigations in San Pedro Sula, told me the police had put out an order to arrest Mr. Claro. But Ms. Ramirez’s mother said “they did nothing to find him.”
Mr. Claro has been spotted over the past two years in the nearby 18th Street strongholds of Japón and Kilómetro. Ms. Hercules shook with anger when she told me “that man is free, he will kill us all, and the authorities will do nothing.” When I spoke with her this week, she said she saw him again in February. She is so frightened, she is thinking of leaving for the United States.
Jose Daniel Sandivar Rios near the place where the discovery of Glenis Hercules was made. He was there when she was found.“There’s a lack of interest in doing the work.”
WOMEN’S MURDERS AREN’T INVESTIGATED OR PROSECUTED because of a toxic stew of corruption, incompetence, and a lack of both resources and interest.
A 2018 study of cases in San Pedro Sula found that more than96 percent of women’s murders go unpunished. The prosecutor’s office blamed this largely on family members being afraid to testify — in a place where you can buy a hit on a person for $50 and no one believes the police can or will protect them. Of 783 killings of women in Cortés between 2013 and 2018, prosecutors here say that just 17 percent have begun a court process and an estimated 12 percent will get a verdict — statistics they trot out as an improvement.
“Government entities work with police and narcos and gangs to hide cases sometimes,” said Belinda Domínguez, the coordinator of Choloma’s Women’s Office. She described prosecutors purposefully losing files or slow-walking cases, and corrupt cops tipping off accused criminals as soon as a complaint is filed. Prosecutors who actually did their jobs have ended up dead.
A worker at the San Pedro Sulamorgue said he was offered $16,300 to change an autopsy report. Criminal organizations pay the police to look the other way, to help them get out of jail when they are arrested and to even kill for them.
Two years ago, a Choloma police officer who was also working as a sicario killed a 20-year-old woman who had refused a narco’s advances. Four months later, the narcos paid to have the officer murdered, to cover their tracks, Virginia Marta Velásquez, the founder of the López Arellano women’s group, told me.
Residents of Choloma making their way past the headquarters of the Women’s Movement of the Neighborhood of López Arellano and Surroundings.
In 2017, in Choloma’s Cerro Verde neighborhood, a bus company was refusing to pay an extortion “tax” to the 18th Street gang. The bus stop was always guarded by the police. One night, several people told me, the police abandoned the stop and eight bus riders were gunned down. The bus company now pays the tax.
“There’s a lack of interest in doing the work,” said Ms. Domínguez, who has an image of the North Star on the wall of her cramped office. The morgue does an autopsy and an investigation, but four out of five times, according to employees at the San Pedro Sula morgue, their report isn’t even picked up by prosecutors. Forensic Medicine has the ability to lift fingerprints from the nylon bags in which women are so often disposed, but the person who would do the test cannot recall police investigators ever requesting one. Last November, when Choloma’s Women’s Office held a training, funded partly by U.S.A.I.D., about how to better handle domestic violence, the police were invited but didn’t come, Ms. Domínguez said.“I saw a demon in his eyes.”
AS A RESULT, MOST ADVANCES FOR ABUSED WOMEN in Choloma have come through nonprofit groups whose leaders risk their lives to teach women their rights and find workarounds to government inaction.
At the offices of the Women’s Movement of the Neighborhood of López Arellano and Surroundings, a steady stream of women arrive each day to ask for help with domestic violence claims or child support.
Ms. Velásquez, a regal mother of nine with short black hair, founded the group in 1992. She got into organizing after a Belgian labor rights organizer she washed clothes for suggested she attend a women’s meeting in the capitol. She and a friend ended up training for a year in women’s legal rights. Then they began training other women — about self-esteem, sex education and the cycle of domestic violence (he hits you, he brings roses, he hits you).
Long before there were any domestic violence laws, Ms. Velásquez and her friend would knock on the doors of abusers. “We are the authorities to stop domestic violence! If you don’t cut it out, we will put you in jail!” they would shout. It often worked. Ms. Velásquez marched through the streets with a bullhorn: “We want to notify women that if your husband is hitting you, come put in a report.”
Virginia Marta Velásquez, one of the founders of the López Arellano's women's group, doing needlework at the office.
Men called them sick and crazy. They said a foreigner had brainwashed them. They barred their wives from coming to meetings. And worse. In 1996, the wife of a police officer was stabbed to death in front of her 4-year-old daughter after she put in a domestic violence complaint at the group’s office. In 2002, another abusive husband poured gasoline on his own house and lit a match with his wife and three children sleeping inside (they woke up and escaped in time).
Nonetheless, the women kept coming. The group helped provide 50,000 signatures to prod Honduras’s congress to pass the 1997 domestic violence law. It helps women fill out forms to take to the police or courts asking for an arrest or temporary restraining order. It lobbied for funding for a walking bridge over the freeway, potable water, a kindergarten. It has provided documents to women applying for asylum in the United States. Today it has 680 members.
The group reels nervous women in by teaching them how to make things they can sell, like crocheted tablecloths. Ms. Martinez, one of the leaders, talks to women about looking at themselves naked, loving their bodies, while they crochet. Almost every surface of her house, including the toilet and the stove, is covered in doilies.
“Women were afraid to talk, to express themselves,” Ms. Martinez said. “Now they talk.”
She also says that domestic abuse has declined. In the early 1990s, an estimated seven in 10 men beat their wives in the area; now it’s two or three of 10, she said. But the murders — they keep happening.
Virginia Marta Velásquez, a mother of nine, founded the women’s group in 1992.
Zoila Lagos, one of the group’s founders, now runs another women’s organization in a nearby neighborhood. The night I visited her, she was trying to keep Rosa Concepción Castellano Coello alive.
Ms. Castellano’s husband, a 230-pound private security guard, had been beating her for 19 years, Ms. Castellano told us. The night before, he had squeezed her throat and lifted her off the ground. He was on crack, Ms. Castellano said, which always makes him more aggressive, and he was angry that she wouldn’t let his lover move in.
When the youngest of their three children, 4-year-old José Daniel, ran into the street for help, Ms. Castellano ran after him. Her husband followed, put the muzzle of his gun against her forehead and said, “I’m going to kill you, bitch,” before firing four shots next to her and their son’s feet. “I saw a demon in his eyes,” she told us. For the first time, she felt he might finish her off.
Ms. Lagos had helped her get a restraining order, but the authorities wouldn’t deliver it until the next day. Ms. Lagos urged her not to go home. “I’m afraid he will kill you,” she said. “We will follow your case and help you.” But Ms. Castellano doesn’t trust the authorities to do anything. She wondered whether her only real chance at safety was to leave in the next caravan north.“Just because you are a woman,
you feel hatred. Like someone
is always trying to kill you.”
EVERYONE IN CHOLOMA KNOWS ABOUT THE WOMAN who was skinned alive here in June 2017.
Edelsa Muñoz Nuñez, 47, lives in an apartment near the two murder victims, Irma Quintero López, 21, and Dunia Xiomara Murillo Reyes, 34. They were tortured and killed in their home, most likely by gang members. They peeled the skin from Ms. Murillo’s legs. “Like you skin a pig,” Ms. Muñoz told me, shaking.
The women’s body parts were found strewn around — the feet in one place, the heads in another. One torso was missing. Although four MS-13 members were arrested, the suspected ringleader of the crime remains at large.
Now Ms. Muñoz leaves her home only to buy food or go to work. On her $285-a-month salary, she can afford to take public transportation only one way, in the morning, when the mototaxi fares are half-price. At night she has to walk through a neighborhood where MS-13 and La Rumba are battling for control.
Ms. Muñoz says the police blame murder victims for going out to drink a beer, or wearing short skirts. “Why don’t they do their work and actually investigate?” she demanded. “The government has to care.”
“When we go out, we don’t know if we will come home,” said Ms. Regalado of the Honduran Women’s Collective. Even as an outsider visiting Choloma for two weeks, I came to understand that deeply. One night, a teenager was shot dead on the street a block away from me. One of seven colleagues at my driver’s taxi stop was murdered while I was in town.
Ms. Garcia, the woman whose friend was killed, has been gang-raped not once but twice in her 38 years. When she was 13, someone drugged her drink at a wedding and she was discovered a dozen hours later in a garbage dump, naked, unconscious, bound at the feet and hands, teeth marks and bruises all over her body. She became pregnant with her now 23-year-old daughter. She says the police never investigated anyone at the wedding to determine who kidnapped her.
Then, on July 16, 2013, she was walking home at 4 p.m. from a meeting at her children’s school in Choloma when two men with black masks materialized in the drizzle. “Too bad you passed by the wrong place at the wrong time,” one of them said, throwing her to the ground. They dragged her into tall grass and, with one holding a machete to her throat, took turns raping her from behind.
For six months, she washed her body with bleach to try to remove the stain of the trauma. She later heard that the same thing had happened to another woman in the same spot. Last year, she went to the police to ask about her case, but she says she was told they were closing it without charging anyone. “I am in constant fear,” Ms. Garcia said. “I leave my house, but I never know if I will return. Just because you are a woman, you feel hatred. Like someone is always trying to kill you.”“I don’t want that to happen to me.”
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The United States cannot erect a wall and expect women to resign themselves to stay put in Honduras and be slaughtered.
President Trump’s plan to cut off foreign aid is exactly the wrong thing to do. We could use that money to fund programs like sex education in schools, which can help break the cycle of domestic abuse, in which children who witness abuse grow up to become abusers. We could use it as a bargaining chip to force reforms. Some Honduran women’s groups have suggested that the United States, as a condition for its aid, require that Honduras commit a percentage of its budget to holding abusers and killers accountable.
Government workers who don’t do their jobs should be fired; those on the take should be fired. The rot starts at the top, with Honduras’s president, Juan Orlando Hernández. The Organization of American Statesquestioned the validity of his 2017 election and his brother, Tony, was arrested last year by the United States for “large-scale” drug trafficking. Instead of accepting him, the United States should push for a change in leadership.
Cutting off the border and trying to stop victims of domestic violence from applying for asylum are even greater mistakes. During World War II, the United States blocked a ship with hundreds of Jewish refugees from docking at our shores, sending many back to their deaths. After the war, the United States declared “never again” and became a leader in the modern-day refugee movement. This is at the core of who we are: We don’t send people who arrive at our borders back to die. We incorporated that ideal into international treaties and our own immigration laws.
If we turn our backs now on Central American women who are running for their lives, we will be failing to meet the lowest possible bar for human rights. These women are being targeted just for being women. They are fleeing countries where the government does little to protect them and is sometimes even complicit in the killings.
Whatever the Trump administration says, the women are not criminals; they are victims. And we are perfectly capable of saving their lives. In the last fiscal year, 97,728 migrants had a credible-fear interview, the first step in the asylum process for people who fear being returned to their own country. Only a small percentage will ultimately be approved. There is no public breakdown on asylum applications by gender, but if even half of those were domestic violence cases, it would be an entirely manageable number of people for one of the richest countries in the world to take in.
Honduran migrants joined a caravan for a journey to the United States in January.
For now, women keep running.
At 9 p.m. on Jan. 14, at a bus terminal in San Pedro Sula, I watched one of the latest caravans leave for the United States. It was pouring rain but they couldn’t afford to wait for morning; police officers were arriving, and the migrants were afraid of being detained.
They went on foot down the dark road north, about 1,500 people, pushing carry-on luggage, strollers, a shopping cart, carrying babies in their arms.
Lilian Johann Mercado Sorian, who is 26, stopped to let her 7-year-old daughter, Andrea Johana Bardales Mercado, sleep for a bit under an empty food stand along the road. There was much pressing her and her husband to leave Honduras, she said: no stable jobs, the rising cost of food, corruption, the fact they lived in a shack.
But at the top of her list was a neighbor who once sold Ms. Mercado sandals. That neighbor was raped and murdered three weeks earlier. She had been kidnapped and cut up with a machete. The police had laughed at her husband when he reported his wife missing. They told him she had probably run off with another man.
“I am afraid,” Ms. Mercado said, pressing forward into the night. “I don’t want that to happen to me.”
Victor J. Blue is a freelance photographer based in New York City. His panoramic photographs of the destroyed cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, are currently on view at the Bronx Documentary Center.