Samanta Helou Hernandez/The World
On June 28, 2009, the night of the coup in Honduras, Vicky Hernández, a trans rights activist, went to work with her friends — other trans sex workers — without knowing about a military-imposed curfew.
According to Hernández’s friends, the troops in the town of San Pedro Sula threatened and chased the sex workers. Hernández disappeared. She was later found dead due to gunshot wounds to her head.
In the weeks that had led up to Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster and exile, violence against Honduras’ lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community spiked along with a heavy military crackdown and nightly curfews.
In the first week of the coup alone, seven trans women were executed. The number of violent deaths of LGBTQ people went from five in 2008 to 31 in 2009, and only eight of those cases have been prosecuted.
To this day, Hernández's murder has not been brought to justice.
But Cattrachas, a lesbian, feminist coalition of trans and cisgender men and women (whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth), has refused to let her case go without a fight. Together, they are taking the state of Honduras to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for Hernández's murder.
If the court rules in their favor, this will be the first time Honduras is held responsible for trans femicide and the group hopes it will set a precedent for similar cases across Latin America.
Cattrachas seeks monetary and psychological reparations for Hernandez’s family who relied on her for economic support.
Founded in 2000 by Indyra Mendoza, a fast-talking, former economist with short, salt-and-pepper hair, Cattrachas tracks incidents of violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Honduras and uses that evidence for strategic litigation and advocacy.
Samanta Helou Hernandez/The World
Mendoza decided to take on Hernández’s case because as a trans, HIV-positive sex worker — murdered on the day of the coup — her execution represented an opportunity to make an impact on transgender justice.
“The state really did nothing. ... This case will create a structural impact. We’re requesting what constitutes a trans femicide be defined.”
“The state really did nothing,” Mendoza said from the Cattrachas offices in Tegucigalpa, the capital. “This case will create a structural impact. We’re requesting what constitutes a trans femicide be defined.”
Cattrachas filed the case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights based in Costa Rica, in 2012.
In May 2019, after seven years of seeking justice for Hernández in Honduras, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights finally agreed to hear their case. Cattrachas had two months to gather evidence to send to the court, after which the state of Honduras was also given two months to provide a report. By October 2019, the court had received all necessary documents from both parties.
Cattrachas now awaits their court date anticipated for March or April of this year.
Mendoza and her colleagues at Cattrachas argue that cases like Hernández's represent the first example of trans femicide being tried in the court.
Lining a wall in the hallway that leads to Mendoza’s office is an altar dotted with photos of trans women murdered in Honduras. They remind everyone to keep fighting.
“I think in the list of all the murders, I knew at least a 100 of them,” Mendoza said. “And if I don’t know them, I know their case. I have to see every photo, every cadaver,” she said. Hernández is one of them.
According to Cattarachas, the state of Honduras carried out an incomplete investigation in the months following Hernández’s murder in 2009, and briefly resumed the investigation two years later, in 2011.
Yet, to this day, police have only gathered a statement from Hernández’s mother and no other witnesses were contacted. A condom was allegedly found at the scene but has yet to be tested for genetic material, according to the Merits Report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“That’s the hard part, that justice is always late. We must win. We must win.”
“That’s the hard part, that justice is always late,” Mendoza said, sitting in her office. “We must win,” she paused. And then reiterated: “We must win.”
Cattrachas says that Honduras is responsible for Hernández's murder due to high levels of military personnel in the area at the time, and a clear pattern of murders of trans women by the state during the first week of the coup — all seven women were shot in the head at night during the military-enforced curfew.
They argue that Hernández’s murder was an extrajudicial execution and that the state failed to properly investigate the facts and hold the perpetrators accountable. Cattrachas alleges that the state violated Hernández’s rights to life, humane treatment, fair trial and judicial and equal protection.
Meanwhile, in the joint report, the state contends that the investigation is still active but has been drawn out due to its complex nature.
According to the state, Hernández’s mother said in a statement taken by the police that "her son had mentioned some weeks earlier that another trans person had robbed him and threatened him if they saw him again they would kill him.” The state also said that Hernández was working in an area heavily controlled by gangs.
But Mendoza and her team insist that the state of Honduras should be held accountable. And she also believes that Cattrachas’ focused evidence-finding and litigation could have national and international repercussions.
Their goal is to change the legal system in Honduras that Mendoza says treats the LGBTQ community as second-class citizens.
Through the impending court case, Cattrachas hopes Honduras will enact a law that guarantees nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, along with investigation protocols for violence against the LGBTQ community. They also want to eliminate the coup-era amnesty law in order to reactivate investigations of human rights violations.
“My activism is focused on changing legal norms — the next generation will be focused on changing social norms,” Mendoza said.
Every morning at Cattrachas starts the same — members sit around a sun-soaked dining room and eat baleadas, a thick flour tortilla folded over and filled with refried beans, cheese and sour cream. The office is filled with colorful art.
The heart of Cattrachas is the media observatory, a room filled with six monitors that constantly cycle through 21 Honduran TV channels. Staff members spend hours staring at computer screens to monitor the news for incidents of violence against LGBTQ people in Honduras.
Staff member Seidy Irias meticulously watches for discriminatory language — used both by reporters and pundits.
On a humid day in June 2019, Irias sat in front of a monitor staring at a photo of a dead trans woman who had been murdered days before. She noticed that the news report identified the woman as part of the “gay” community.
Vii Viera, a fellow staff member, inputs the murder and language used by the news outlet into their in-house database, which allows them to analyze trends and share the information.
“I have yet to see a publication that uses inclusive language ... and the media has a lot of power — it affects us.”
“I have yet to see a publication that uses inclusive language,” Viera told The World, “and the media has a lot of power — it affects us.”
Roxana Diaz, a forensics doctor with the national police investigations division, has spent years working in collaboration with Cattrachas to accurately track hate crimes that affect the LGBTQ community. The shared goal is to ensure that no act of violence goes unreported.
When a body arrives at the morgue and Diaz suspects the person was a member of the LGBTQ community, she contacts Cattrachas to ensure that the death was correctly tracked and recorded.
"The dead talk, they have a lot to say.”
“We see that with cases involving a member of the [LGBTQ] community, there tend to be a lot more signs of cruelty and hate in the body,” Diaz said. “The dead talk, they have a lot to say.”
Cattrachas also calls Diaz when they learn about an LGBTQ-related murder to ensure the body was accurately documented and autopsied.
By flagging potential LGBTQ murders using indicators typical of hate crimes — such as mutilated genitals — Diaz adds valuable information that improves investigations.
Unfortunately, because Hernández was HIV-positive, she did not receive an autopsy — despite two requests by her prosecutors — a violation of Honduran law.
“We can’t isolate the LGBTQ community,” said Diaz at the Police Investigations Directorate in Tegucigalpa. “We have to be objective in our scientific work, with the goal of seeking the truth and ensuring that cases don’t end in impunity.”
Samanta Helou Hernandez/The World
In the decade since the coup, Cattrachas has counted 350 violent deaths of LGBTQ people — of those, 111 were trans women. They credit the uptick in religious fundamentalism as the main reason for the increase of violence. “You could say that enemy No. 1 for us is religious fundamentalists,” Mendoza said.
Through their tracking system, the group has identified a correlation between anti-LGBTQ discourse by religious leaders and an increase in violent deaths of queer people.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a rise in conservative religiosity [and these people have] decided to fight back, and intensify their homophobic and transphobic discourses,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College and an expert on LGBTQ rights in Latin America.
Corrales said that with evangelical churches, in particular, members fervently align with the rhetoric of their pastors.
“They have influence both from the top-down and bottom-up, because the hierarchy these churches are involved in public opinion, but also the followers of evangelical churches are willing to go along with these teachings,” he said.
Samanta Helou Hernandez/The World
Talia, a former trans rights activist with Cattrachas, knows firsthand what it feels like to be targeted — and survive. Talia asked to refrain from using her last name to protect her identity.
The last time Talia was beaten by state agents was in 2008. As she stood on a street with fellow sex workers in Tegucigalpa, a group of men in military uniform beat her with batons, she said.
It took her two weeks to recover from the injuries. She suspected her years of activism with Cattrachas as the reasons for being singled out.
As a trans woman, Talia had come to expect abuse from authorities. She said that in the '90s while working as a sex worker — technically a legal profession in Honduras — she was repeatedly raped, robbed and beaten by police officers. But this was the worst incident of all.
Talia filed a complaint against the military officers, but fellow activists worried about retribution. Yet, Talia refused to leave her family and home country behind. Instead, she went into hiding. She stopped taking hormones, cut her hair and began dressing as a man for the next four years.
“It wasn’t what I wanted, but I had to stay alive,” she said. “It’s horrible that they violate the freedom of expressing yourself as you are.”
These days, Talia, with a cheery disposition, considers herself a strong woman with dreams of a bright future as a businesswoman.
“I’m one of the few that survived. ... I’ve lost most of my friends along the way, and I’ve had to bury them.”
“I’m one of the few that survived,” Talia said. “I’ve lost most of my friends along the way, and I’ve had to bury them.”
For Talia, Mendoza and her team, their hope for the future of trans rights is now bound up in Hernández’s case. It will define the legacy of Cattrachas and has the potential to change the impunity of trans murders in Latin America.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.
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