Terror and rape in a Honduran village
12 months ago
My story takes me down dirt roads to the municipality of Santa Elena, which stretches out across 186 square kilometers in La Paz, southwestern Honduras. It’s an area of green pastureland, orchards, organic crops, and chimneys that fill the landscape with smoke. Its streams run crystal-clear, like the arteries of a circulatory system embedded in the mist-shrouded mountains. The air smells of tortillas, made with corn of different colors, and firewood freshly cut to take to the stove.
In the municipality is a village of the same name, home to the indigenous Lencas, who still travel on horseback and cultivate their corn and bean plots with ox-drawn plows. Most of the Lencas’ land is owned by the state or held in “communal titles” on behalf of indigenous groups, who consider land, rivers, and wildlife part of their body and spirit.
The Lencas’ worldview and traditions are under pressure from the Catholic Church, neoliberal economic policies, international aid programs, and the government, which uses carrots and sticks to influence them. Their activists have lately been the target of a terror campaign, including murder, for opposing construction of hydroelectric dams in the region. The dams are owned by the husband of Gladys Aurora López, vice president of the Honduran congress.
Maternity-related health complications are common, leading to one death in 2014, according to the Health Ministry. Teen pregnancy is also on the rise.
At the same time, the indigenous leaders of Santa Elena, who are members of human rights organizations, have accused activists and former officials from the ruling party of raping the community’s girls and women. Some of the victims, they say, have aborted or otherwise tried to get rid of the babies that resulted.
Abortion is illegal in Honduras, even in cases of rape.
To see if there is merit in the allegations, and to investigate the case of one young woman tried for infanticide in 2013, in September I began to search for information and to interview community leaders.
From the prosecutor's office, I requested records about the specific case, as well as records of men in the area who were convicted of rape around the same time. I also asked how many of the regional cases had occurred in the village of Santa Elena.
The prosecution refused to release most of the information, reporting only that in 2013 and 2014 two cases were brought against women for the violent deaths of newborns. No men were charged in crimes that might be considered related, such as rape or sexual assault.
In the face of the prosecutor’s refusal, I obtained the official information through contacts. It included an infanticide that occurred in Santa Elena in 2013 that does not show up in homicide statistics compiled by the Secretariat of Security.
Also in contradiction to the figures of the secretariat, court records show two infanticides in 2012. Local people say a ruling party activist raped an indigenous girl in one village and a former party official raped and impregnated another indigenous teenager in a different village.
"There was a problem of men watching over the girls to rape them, which the citizen’s safety committee stopped,” a community leader from Santa Elena said.
My research continues with meetings, interviews, fieldwork, and data analysis. Many thanks to those who made this dream possible and to Press Start for its support.