René Martínez was president of Comunidad Gay Sampedrana, an LGBT advocacy group in San Pedro Sula, a city in northwest Honduras, in June 2016. He was also running an outreach center in the city’s Chamelecón neighborhood through Youth Alliance Honduras, an organization that is part of an anti-violence program the U.S. Agency for International Development helped to develop.
Martínez was a “well-known” member of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s ruling National Party when he disappeared on June 1, 2016. Martínez’s relatives identified his body in San Pedro Sula’s morgue two days later.
“We worked a lot together,” Allysson Hernández, a transgender rights activist who lives outside of San Pedro Sula, told the Washington Blade on Friday during a telephone interview. “He gave me the space to work on my projects.”
Martínez’s murder underscores the very real risks that San Pedro Sula’s LGBT activists face in one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
San Pedro Sula in 2015 had 171.2 murders per 100,000 people, which made it the most dangerous city in the world that it is not in a war zone. This figure dropped to 111.03 murders per 100,000 people in 2016.
San Pedro Sula is Honduras’ second-largest city with 719,064 people, according to the country’s 2013 Census. The city generates more than 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Honduras — which borders Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua — is among the most violent countries in the world.
The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security notes the Central American nation in 2011 had 86.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2011. The Honduran government indicates this figure dropped to 66.4 murders per 100,000 people in 2014, but advocates have questioned these statistics.
Activists: Police are more of a threat than gangs
Maras and pandillas (street gangs) and drug traffickers are largely responsible for the violence that is concentrated in Chamelecón and other poor neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula. Cattrachas, an advocacy group based in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, and activists with whom the Blade spoke said members of the country’s military and Policia Militar (Military Police) routinely commit human rights abuses.
LGBT people are the frequent targets.
“Sometimes the worst violations that we have are with the government,” a San Pedro Sula-based activist told the Blade during a Feb. 10 interview.
The activist, who has been the target of two assassination attempts over the last year, asked the Blade not to publish their name.
“Police officers, soldiers are the ones who violate our rights,” said the activist.
The activist said police officers frequently target trans sex workers for extortion and violence. The activist told the Blade that gangs also force them to pay “daily or weekly rent to do their work on the street” and force them to sell drugs.
The activist said those who publicly criticize the gangs and the police and file formal complaints against them receive threats and often go into hiding. Freddy Funez, an LGBT activist who worked closely with Martínez, largely echoed these accounts.
Funez told the Blade on Feb. 10 during an interview at his office in San Pedro Sula that police officers often extort money from LGBT sex workers in order to allow them to work. He said they also extort money from their clients in exchange for not detaining them and telling their families.
“We are much more afraid of the police,” said Funez.
Funez told the Blade that police officers are responsible for “a great number of” murders of LGBT people in San Pedro Sula. He cited a case in which officers cut off a gay man’s penis before they dismembered him.
“The police can carry out more atrocities and violence than the gang members,” said Funez.
The Blade has reached out to the Honduran government for comment.
‘We have a forced migration’
Funez, Hernández and the activist with whom the Blade spoke all said the lack of employment, education and health care and poverty have made San Pedro Sula’s LGBT community particularly vulnerable to violence and discrimination from the police and gangs. Many feel as though they have no choice but to flee the country.
“They kill them; they assault them,” said the activist. “This, therefore, forces them to migrate. We have a forced migration. They don’t do it because they want to. They are doing it because the situation in which we are living in our country is very difficult.”
Many trans women who migrate to Mexico with the hope of entering the U.S. do so with the assistance of coyotes (smugglers) who frequently force them into prostitution or target them for human trafficking. Gangs that operate along the Mexico-U.S. border also force them into sex work and drug smuggling.
“They are a great danger for them,” said the activist.
Funez told the Blade that eight out of 10 LGBT people in San Pedro Sula still want to migrate to the U.S., in spite of the risks.
“I am in this country; I am LGTB; I don’t have employment opportunities; I don’t have a quality education that I am going to migrate,” he said, speaking hypothetically. “For us and for the community in Honduras in general and for the LGTB community, it has always seen the United States as the best, as the safest country, as the country that respects human rights a lot.”
“For someone in the community to say I am going to go to the United States and not return to this country is common,” added Funez.
Funez spoke with the Blade 15 days after President Trump signed an executive order that spurs construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have detained hundreds of undocumented immigrants in raids across the country. The White House on Friday denied an Associated Press report that said it planned to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to roundup undocumented immigrants in 11 states.
Mara Salvatrucha other street gangs that are responsible for the majority of the violence in San Pedro Sula and across Honduras and in neighboring El Salvador can trace their roots to Los Angeles.
The U.S. in the 1990s began to deport large numbers of foreign-born criminals. Many of them were gang members who ended up in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Funez told the Blade that many people “don’t understand” why Trump wants to build the wall. He also noted remittances from the U.S. account for a fifth of Honduras’ gross national product.
“For the majority of LGTB Hondurans who have gone, they are people who have dignified work in the United States,” said Funez. “They are feeling productive in the United States.”
The activist who asked the Blade to remain anonymous said LGBT migrants “are going to face more risk” because of the wall.
‘My work is here’ in San Pedro Sula
In spite of pervasive violence and discrimination, San Pedro Sula’s LGBT activists insist they have seen progress.
Claudia Spellman, a trans woman who directed an HIV/AIDS service organization in San Pedro Sula, and Josué Hernández, an openly gay man from the Cortés Department in which the city is located, ran for the Honduran Congress in 2012.
Spellman resettled in the D.C. area with her now wife after she received death threats. Erick Martínez, a prominent gay activist in Tegucigalpa, is running for Congress as a candidate from the left-leaning Liberty and Refoundation and Anti-Corruption Parties.
Trans advocacy groups and their supporters organized a march to the Congress on May 17, 2016 — the International Day Against Homophobia an Transphobia — in support of a bill that would allow trans Hondurans to legally change their names on legal documents. The Honduran government a few weeks later condemned the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead and more than 50 others injured.
The massacre took place less than two weeks after René Martínez’s murder.
“There has been a very big opening in this country in the political arena,” Funez told the Blade, noting San Pedro Sula is Honduras’ most LGBT tolerant city.
Hernández was equally as optimistic, if not defiant.
“I am going to continue this fight,” Hernández told the Blade.
The activist with whom the Blade spoke on Feb. 10 said emphatically they have no plans to leave San Pedro Sula.
“My work is here,” said the activist. “When I go to another country, my fight ends.”
“I want to keep fighting until it is possible that there is a gender law, until trans women don’t face human rights violations,” they added.
- Chris Johnson, Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association