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Sonia Nazario’s Powerful NYT Op-ed About Violence Against Women in Honduras: ‘Someone Is Always Trying to Kill You’

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Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sonia Nazario has an op-ed in the New York Times that delves into the horrific and life-threatening abuse Honduran woman face on a day-to-day basis. Nazario portrays the dire reasons the Trump administration should not turn its back on Central American countries – it lies in the graphic stories of the countless women who have been brutally murdered and abused, while their government does nothing to intervene. Their stories give a voice to the thousands whose lives will be affected by the callous policies of this administration if it chooses to ignore their cries for help.

The op-ed is excperted below and available in full here.

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.

… “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 month long 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 — a 2015 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.

… 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.

… Sometimes the deaths have nothing to do with the gangs. But the impunity for violent men is the same.

Heidy Hernandez’s husband, 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.

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.”

… 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.

… 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 than 96 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.

… “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.

… 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.

… 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.

… 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.”