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The Northern Triangle: The Countries That Don't Cry for Their Dead

  • Written by Suchit Chavez and Jessica Avalos*
  • Wednesday, 23 April 2014
A murder scene in Tegucigalpa, Honduras A murder scene in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

In the past three years, 48,947 people were murdered in the Northern Triangle, the most violent region of the world, which is home to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In those three years, these countries achieved convictions in 2,295 cases, representing an impunity rate of 95 percent for homicides. This is the reality for thousands of victims in the region: states that neither guarantee justice nor programs that provide special attention to the victims of this excessive violence.

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***

When they killed my girl, she was two years old, and I was 16. She was my first and only daughter. That day we were going to a vigil. We were walking down the street. When we passed by an area filled with mareros [gang members], a man came out who was kind of drunk. Behind him came another with a gun, and he started to shoot. The girl was walking next to us. When I turned to look behind, because it sounded like firecrackers, one was shooting at the other. We wanted to go, but a bullet had already hit my little girl. Her father picked her up in his arms. We didn't even see how it hit her. She was still alive, but she died as we were walking. It would have been worse to see her suffer. These things happen.

The following are excerpts from an article that originally appeared in La Prensa Grafica and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.

Later we heard they had arrested that guy, but who knows if it was the same one, because they got a bunch of them. Who knows if he is in prison. And is it going to come out in the paper that I am living here today? Very dangerous, better not even mention my name, or where we came from. Since October, I have been here. It is more peaceful here, not like in Mejicanos, although nowadays it's nearly the same everywhere.

(The two-year-old girl was caught in the middle of crossfire in Mejicanos, in San Salvador. The mother of the girl, who is now 17, is awaiting her second child. She is five months pregnant.)

***

The Northern Triangle epithet was originally applied for commercial purposes, far from what it has now come to stand for: a synonym for violence. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began to be known as the Northern Triangle after May 12, 1992, following the signing of a trade agreement in Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras. However, the name became popular years later, in 2001, after the beginning of the Free Trade Agreement with Mexico.

Thirteen years have passed, and this commercial alliance has given way to another source of fame. During 2013, the Northern Triangle was again the most violent region in the world. Again. The United Nations had already given it this label a year earlier, when the homicide rate, which serves as an indicator of violence levels, rose above 50 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.

In just 2013, there were 15,328 homicides in the Northern Triangle. When the perspective is widened to include the years 2011 through 2013, the figures paint a picture of a Central American cemetery: 48,947 tombs in those three years. Due to the multiplicity of homicides, the Northern Triangle has stopped naming its victims, and now just counts and accumulates them.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides

Each country, to a greater or lesser extent, has contributed to this quota. In Guatemala, for example, there were 18,450 homicides between 2011 and 2013. The Public Ministry's (MP) secretary of criminal policy, Alejandro Rodriguez, provided an example of how Guatemalans have trivialized the homicides and the violence. According to Rodriguez, since 2009, when Guatemala had a murder rate of 46 per 100,000 residents, the Guatemalan newspaper Nuestro Diario (Our Daily) has been called by the nickname "Muerto Diario" (Daily Deaths).

"They changed the name to Muerto Diario because only photos of dead people appeared," Rodriguez said on February 11, 2014 from his office in Guatemala City. He then paused, reddened, and laughed sharply.

***

In the following days, it bothered me to see other people happy. The people were not at fault, but I was bitter and deeply resentful. I was protesting to God. I said: "God, why? I put you in charge of them every night: 'God, I entrust you with my sons, you see them, I do not.'" I spent about three months not wanting to know anything about God. I kept asking myself: why at that age, why like that? It hurt me so much to think about what my little boy might have felt, what pain. As a mother, one says, "Shit! My son has fallen!" and lifts him up, and even if it's just saliva, you give it to them. And I wasn't with him at that moment.

(Olinda Escobar, mother of Cristofer Lopez Escobar, murdered on January 22, 2011 in the El Calvario Bethesda church, located in the municipality of San Miguel Petapa, Guatemala. The 20-year-old Cristofer was murdered while participating in a wake for one of his best friends.)

***

In total, 9,464 people were murdered in El Salvador between 2011 and 2013, a time period that encompasses the gang truce initiated in March 2012, the pact that President Mauricio Funes has refused to recognize as his own strategy. The truce, while considerably decreasing the number of homicides in El Salvador, has not managed to halt the violence. What's more, murders have again begun to rise, despite the agreement, since July 2013. This fact led Rigoberto Pleites, the director of the Salvadoran National Civil Police (PNC), to announce on March 3 this year that the "truce technically no longer exists."

Over those same three years, the Salvadoran courts handed out 490 sentences for homicide cases, according to figures provided by the Attorney General's Office -- 490 sentences. This is equal to slightly over five percent of homicides committed in those same years. A quick calculation leaves little room for optimism: the impunity rate in El Salvador stands at over 94 percent.

***

That night he sent me a message. At about 8:20pm, he wrote saying I should tell mom and dad that he was going to come home late. That they shouldn't worry, everything was okay. At around 9pm, I heard the shot. When we walked out, there was a terrible gathering. They were putting him in a car, but he didn't fit. So they took him out and put him in a pick-up truck; even now we don't know who it was that brought us. My parents stayed behind, because when my mother arrived on the scene she was so shocked she could not move. A cousin and I got in the truck to take him to the hospital. He practically had a bullet here and his eyes were closing… but he was alive because… well, we are Christians, and I was begging God so much to give us the strength to resist. So, he was alive because he had me by the hand, he was holding it so tight. And we arrived that way to the hospital.

(Claudia, the sister of a young man murdered in La Libertad on February 11, 2011, who asked not to be identified. She saved the last message her brother sent to her phone for two years -- the same one that she mentions in this story. She finally lost it because her telephone broke.)

***

Next to the morgue in Honduras' capital city of Tegucigalpa, there is a funeral home. It is a branch of the Los Olivos funeral home, which has been operating for 40 years. That office has been in place for 14 years. The smell of decay enters in waves into this room where the varnish of the coffins shines. According to Marta Ordoñez, one of the people in charge, the majority of the services are for homicides. "The violent deaths are mainly caused by drug traffickers," she said. The work is never scarce here.

Etelinda Lopez, a pathology assistant with Honduras' forensics institute, said that of every 10 bodies brought to the morgue, between seven and eight are for violent deaths. And while she admitted that the state had a duty to the victims' families to provide them with a more dignified treatment (Honduras, like Guatemala and El Salvador, lacks a special victims unit), she said her work was affected by scarcities. Sometimes they do not even have gasoline for the vehicles to transport the cadavers. Forensic Medicine only has three offices where they perform autopsies in the entire country: Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba.

"Not all of the [cadavers from] violent deaths are autopsied, because in some cases, we don't have a way to transport the bodies. We are a regional office that is responsible for the entire central, south and eastern regions of the country. And within these regions, there are some particularly violent areas, like Olancho, where there is a great resistance to having bodies transported to Forensic Medicine," said Lopez. For some cases, then, no autopsy occurs. If this does not happen, then there is no document establishing whether the death was due to homicide or not. And if this is not established, then the murder will certainly not be prosecuted. In Honduras, according to figures from the Supreme Court of Justice, for every 100 homicides, the perpetrators are sentenced in just three cases. That is to say: the impunity rate in the most violent country in the Northern Triangle is 97.44 percent.

In Honduras, 21,033 people have been murdered in the past three years, from 2011 through 2013. This represents an average of 19 people killed violently each day. A large number of these people are shot, according to statistics from the Violence Observatory of the University Institute of Democracy, Peace and Security (IUDPAS) at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. This, in practical terms, means a flood of images of people shot, dismembered and strangled on the Honduran television news channels, under titles such as "bloody spell." There are many scenes in the Bajo Aguan region, in San Pedro Sula and in Tegucigalpa with victims for whom no responsibility is established in most cases. There are, even, distinguished reporters in the Forensic Medicine morgue. If there is ever a day when there have not yet been any murders, one is certain to occur shortly.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

"The problem is that when the state doesn't investigate or prosecute, they open up the opportunity for people to arm themselves first, to take justice into their own hands. When we don't demonstrate the reality and we are not transparent in telling it [how it is], this gives rise to people feeling that there is impunity. But later, they [feel that they] need to take justice into their own hands," said Migdonia Ayestas, director of the Violence Observatory.

***

The person who killed my son already had been watching him, and shot him from behind. A neighbor, who lived about four houses down from mine, had sent him to buy cell phone minutes. When he returned, this person shot him from behind. The child wanted to defend himself because he had already been shot in the hand. If they had hit him from the front, maybe they would have injured him, but would not have killed him. But they shot him in the head. They shot him with so much hate… he had gunshots in his back and in his head. It is hard. Believe me, it is hard. I try to move forward, because I have my other son, but my life has been definitively changed. Before, I opened the store from Monday to Sunday and I only went to sleep in the house on weekends. My mom took care of them for me from Monday to Friday, but ever since that happened to my son, I realized it is not worth it and I no longer work Saturday or Sunday.

(Edith, who chose to use this name for the story, the mother of a 15-year-old youth murdered in Soyapango on December 19, 2010. Edith's son was in ninth grade.)

***

"Chilling police corruption," read the cover page of the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo on February 5, 2014. This special report referred to 202 police investigated for the crimes of corruption, hired killings and drug theft. It also mentioned that some police, instead of being removed from the force and prosecuted, had been retired "with honors" from the National Police. The stamp of drug trafficking is pervasive in the imagery of Honduran violence, just as the gangs are in El Salvador.

Honduras' Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla had little problem admitting this. "We have to in some way strengthen the situation of our country in regard to the control and entry of drugs. Not all homicides are caused by drug trafficking, but a significant portion of the violence is generated by this problem," said the official.

In a February 7 interview that took place in his Tegucigalpa office, Attorney General Chinchilla did not provide a percentage for the effectiveness of investigations, nor did he give the number of prosecutors assigned to the Life Unit, created in 2013 specifically for cases of violent deaths. He also failed to provide the case load number for each prosecutor. Honduras (this he did confirm) has 619 prosecutors spread throughout all of the country's units. If all of these prosecutors were dedicated only to investigating homicides, in order to resolve the 21,033 cases between 2011 and 2013, each one would have to have a case load of 33.

***

When my husband stopped in the entryway, the life went out of me. I looked at him crying. Oh, God, I lost him then! My son, who didn't buy anything if I didn't approve. When my son lived here, my husband said: "The two sweethearts are chatting," because he told me everything. He was a son… And he never left his church. And his brothers either… I still question it, and ask myself, "Why?" The thing is, here there is no justice. There is no justice.

(Yolanda Avila, 62-years-old, mother of Erick Alexander Martinez Avila, murdered on May 7, 2012 in Tegucigalpa, at the age of 33. The first time Yolanda saw her husband cry was when they killed his son. They had been married for 36 years.)

***

The Violence Observatory where Migdonia Ayestas works is part of the National Autonomous University of Honduras. The university president is Julieta Castellanos. Her son, Rafael, was murdered in Tegucigalpa in 2011.

Ayestas, the director of the Observatory at IUDPAS in Honduras, said that the Security Ministry has denied them, since July 2011, some homicide statistics to which only the police have access. The observatory uses the media's bloody accounts to make up for the official underreporting, but there is a problem:

"If we don't register a homicide, if a family member or my family member didn't get registered, obviously [the murder] doesn't exist. They are still alive. Or disappeared. But that person died. There is evidence that they were buried, that they have a name, a last name, a sex, a context in which it occurred," said the IUDPAS director.

***

Yes, they shot me in the back too. It was December 7, 2011. We were going about our normal affairs as a couple. It was a good day, because I had been out of work. I was doing consultancy work at the time. With consultancy, sometimes there is work, and sometimes there isn't. For him it was a good day, because it was the day for him to collect the modest, very modest, salary that he received as an adviser. And I had just gotten a new consultancy job. What I mean to say is, it was a day filled with happiness for us. And we were going down the street and they shot at us en route. They shot at him. I didn't notice, because they shot me too. We crashed into a post. But my husband was already half dead. I crashed because I saw that he was mortally wounded. While I was looking at him, immediately, as if by magic, the police appeared. The police were watching over things. Or, I mean, everything was very well guarded. I think it was a crime that was totally… It wasn't the police that killed him, but the police made sure the murder turned out well.

(Hilda Calderas, 56 years old, wife of Alfredo Landaverde, an expert in anti-drug matters and former security adviser, murdered on December 7, 2011 in Tegucigalpa, at the age of 71. Before beginning the interview, she paused in silence for a moment, while the pianist from the Honduras Maya Hotel played the song "Hello Dolly," which he always used to play when they entered that hotel. This is where they were married on February 5, 1981, exactly 33 years before this interview.)

***

El Salvador has a National Victims' Attention Office, which was created in 2011. This office, which is attached to the Security and Justice Ministry, has 20 employees and an annual budget of $172,000. Those 20 people attended 143 people last year, mainly victims of domestic violence, human trafficking or threats. Not one single family member of a homicide victim.

"This is the first time that the security framework has included the issue of responding to all of the trauma that El Salvador's victims suffer, because this had always been left to the side. The office is starting with the stage of providing psychological, legal and social attention to the victims. It will need a lot more money to be able to help homicide victims," said the Victims' Attention director, Fatima Ortiz.

The unit calculated how much money it costs the country to provide attention to each victim. Attending a rape or sexual assault victim, for example, entails a cost of $5,000, which includes: legal and psychological counseling, supplies, accommodations and transport for six months. They have estimated that attention to victims of violence averages around $3,500. They would need at least $8.7 million to attend at least one family member (mother, son, wife, husband) of all 2,499 victims of homicide in 2013.

"One of our objectives is to 'restore the social fabric,' because we know that if not, the sickness will continue, but also when we began they gave us an incredibly broad mandate: homicides, all crimes. We know we will have to narrow it down. I think it will be part of the new government that ultimately makes that type of decision," said Ortiz.

*The reporting for this article was performed as part of the Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in Alliance with CONNECTAS. This article originally appeared in La Prensa Grafica and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.

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