At least three transgender women have been killed in Honduras during the first week of July, according to local press reports and activists.
Bessy Ferrera, a well-known HIV and transgender activist and the sister of Rihanna Ferrera — the only transgender person to run in the country’s 2017 elections — was gunned down early Monday morning in Comayagüela. Ferrera was with a group of transgender women when some men approached and shot at them. She was 40 years old.
"Although violence against trans people in Central America is continuous, we haven’t seen this level of violence in the last year."
Paul Jansen, OutRight Action International
“Today we woke up with the painful news that our companion, friend and sister was murdered,” Asociación Arcoiris, a Honduran LGBTQ advocacy group that Ferrera was a member of, wrote on its Facebook page. “No doubt this news has taken us by surprise, leaving us with a lump in the throat and a feeling of impotence to see how we are being killed cruelly and the authorities of this country do nothing.”
Another transgender woman present was also shot at the scene, after which she was taken to the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa. Police have reportedly arrested two suspects in connection with the attack, but Astrid Ramos, a lawyer for Cattrachas, an LGBTQ human rights organization in Honduras, told NBC News that Ferrera’s case is indicative of the lack of protections for trans women in the country.
“Cattrachas worked with Bessy in 2008 when she issued a complaint after she was attacked by some police officers. She was beaten and almost killed,” Ramos said. “The case is still going on, more than 10 years later. We’ve been pressuring prosecutors, but there’s still impunity and the complaints are not taken seriously.”
A transgender television personality known for her commentary on LGBTQ issues was also killed this past weekend.
Santiago “Santi” Carvajal was shot by strangers Friday, while she was walking with friends toward a television station in the city of Puerto Cortés. Her relatives told La Vanguardia that she died at the Mario Catarino Rivas Hospital in San Pedro Sula on Saturday.
Carvajal, 32, was the host of “La Galaxia de Santi,” a critically acclaimed local magazine show that appeared on a local television channel, and was a social media maven.
Ramos said that similar to Ferrera, Carvajal had received death threats before she was murdered. Her death marks the 78th murder of journalists and others working in media in Honduras since 2001.
“Trans people in Honduras are viewed as the lowest of the low; they’re seen as horrible people, and when they are visible and vocal, people take it as an invitation to kill them…”
Ramos and Paul Jansen, program director at OutRight Action International, a global LGBTQ human rights organization, told NBC News that a third woman was shot in El Negrito, a municipality in Yoro, on July 3. Antonia Laínez, 38, was a stylist.
“This week was particularly tragic,” Jansen said. “Although violence against trans people in Central America is continuous, we haven’t seen this level of violence in the last year.”
Jansen said he doesn’t believe that these recent murders are linked by common perpetrators so much as they are linked by a culture of violence in the region.
Honduras, which along with El Salvador and Guatemala composes Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle, is one of the deadliest countries in the world. Though the country’s homicide rate has vastly decreased, it remains one of the highest, with 40 people per 100,000 killed in 2018.
LGBTQ people are an especially vulnerable population in the country. Cattrachas has recorded 327 violent murders of LGBTQ individuals in the last 10 years, but Ramos said this number could underrepresent the number of people murdered, since the organization’s database is derived from media reports. This year to date, at least 21 LGBTQ people have been murdered in Honduras: nine gay men, seven trans people and five lesbians.
“Honduras is a hostile environment for LGBT people because of several statements by, for example, President Hernández, members of Congress, and influential religious leaders against LGBT people and same-sex marriage," a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "That makes LGBT people more vulnerable to violence, in a context that is already violent."
Jansen ascribes the violence against trans individuals in Honduras to multiple factors: rampant impunity, government corruption, gang violence and a pervasive culture of heteronormativity and enduring patriarchy.
“It’s the ideal cocktail for people to do what they please,” Jansen said. “Trans people in Honduras are viewed as the lowest of the low; they’re seen as horrible people, and when they are visible and vocal, people take it as an invitation to kill them, which is unacceptable and unjustifiable.”
Violence against transgender individuals in Central America has caused many to leave their home countries in search of asylum. But experts say leaving doesn’t necessarily ensure their lives are any safer.
“Trans women just want to be safe. They want out,” Jansen said. “A lot of people say that anything is better than Honduras, but I question how true that statement is when we see the levels of violence rising during their journey and in these [immigration detention] facilities.”
Last month, Johana Medina Leon, a transgender woman from El Salvador, died in a Texas hospital four days after being released from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. Another transgender woman, Roxsana Hernandez, died in ICE custody from an untreated AIDS-related illness after leaving Honduras for the United States last year.
Three police officers in El Salvador were recently charged with the murder of Camila Díaz Cordova, according to the Washington Blade. Díaz Cordova, a transgender woman who joined a caravan heading from Central America to the U.S. last year to escape threats, was deported and murdered upon returning to her native country.
“Everyone in the LGBT community feels vulnerable and insecure, especially transgender people,” Ramos said. “The Honduran state does not recognize them as people subject to rights. They cannot change their names; there are no opportunities to access education or health, so in many cases they’re obligated to do survival sex work.”
“It’s understandable why many are trying to escape the country,” she added.