For Honduran women, crossing the street without being victims of harassment is improbable and crossing borders without suffering gender-based violence is unimaginable. Rosa – a name she chose to protect her identity – escaped from her aggressor twice. The first time she tried to reach the United States with her brother, but they were kidnapped by Los Zetas in Mexico. The second time she tried to travel the same route with her children, but they were separated by Mexican federal agents. In Honduras, justice has not yet responded to her, because the court has not yet issued a sentence in the judicial process for violence against women. Without this sentence, Rosa cannot begin to process her divorce.
Text: Laura García Cáceres
Illustration: Axel Josué Mencía Monroy
Translation: Amy Patricia Morales
“We were in Piedras Negras when we fell into the hands of Los Zetas,” Rosa said, recalling her first trip to the United States in 2007. “They took us to a house with goat horns, they stripped us naked, they grabbed my brother and with a gun to his head they told him to bend down without his pants.” Piedras Negras is a city in the border state of Coahuila, on the other side of the Rio Bravo. By 2009, the Piedras Negras prison was controlled by Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most feared drug cartels.
Rosa and her brother were locked in a warehouse while their mother in Honduras raised $4,000 (approximately 72,000 lempiras in 2007) for the cartel to release her two children. After weeks of waiting, her mother sold a plot of land, the only property Rosa had. “They were nights filled with anxiety, I listened when they shouted at him [my brother] and beat him every five minutes,” she said.
But even before the kidnapping, the journey had already been harrowing. “We endured hunger for days, we passed 12 trains, 32 tunnels, and we slept out in the open. We had to get into containers full of migrants, they would turn on the floodlights and say they were going to take [kidnap] women (…) We left for a future and what we found was misfortune.” As a result of these beatings, Rosa’s brother was left in a paraplegic state and they had to return to Honduras when they were released.
Ten years passed between her first and second attempts to reach the United States. During that time, Rosa returned to work at a market in the capital while she sought assistance from the government agencies she thought could help her: the Women’s Prosecutor’s Office and the National Women’s Institute. She did not want to go to the United States again because she already knew the risks of the migratory route. However, that was the only way she found to escape, for the second time, a violent marriage.
“I asked all the authorities for help,” Rosa commented, recalling her desperation, “I filed a complaint with Core 7 for physical abuse and aggression. I am still tied to him and they have not listened to me.”
Despite all the evidence that Rosa’s public defense presented to the Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Protection of Women (FEP-Mujer) of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), and despite the fact that her aggressor admitted the abuse in front of a judge, Rosa continues to be married to her aggressor. The problem lies in the fact that within the Honduran courts, a ruling declaring the existence of a crime of domestic violence is not enough for a divorce to be processed ex officio.
“One thing is to demonstrate the aggression, and another is to channel and use the aggression as grounds for divorce,” said the executive director of the Integral Development Unit for Women and the Family (Udimuf), Vanessa Siliézar. The Prosecutor’s Office cannot help her with her divorce, so Rosa has to hire a private attorney to process it using the sentence that is yet to be issued.
“If she has a legal document where he accepts that he has assaulted her, this document constitutes full proof to be used as grounds for divorce. And if any hearing or sentence is still pending, then it is difficult for her to get a divorce from her aggressor. The probability of a fair sentence in cases of women in situations of violence revolves around the amount of money they have available to be represented in court”, indicated Siliézar.
National legislation to protect women
The Law Against Domestic Violence came into force in 1998 in Honduras. It was the first law in the Central American region to recognize that violence between partners and ex-partners is prosecutable, and that it constitutes a violation of women’s rights.
However, the law was not incorporated into criminal matters; therefore, domestic violence is not a crime, it remained only as a sanctioning norm in a legal body outside the Penal Code. With the passing of the years, in the opinion of attorney Siliézar, it was covered with impunity and has turned out to be insufficient.
Contrary to domestic violence, intra-family violence is considered a crime. The 1983 Penal Code considered domestic violence a crime, with a penalty of 1-3 years imprisonment. With the 2005 penal reforms, the penalties for crimes against sexual freedom were reduced. “The problem starts here,” Siliézar added, “because with such a low penalty, the order of the MP is to suspend the criminal action. The prosecutor does not prosecute the aggressor because the penalties are minimal compared to other crimes.
“The Judiciary issues sentences according to the tools at its disposal. What guarantees a good trial in criminal matters is the criminal investigation. With weak legislation, prosecutors have no arguments or evidence to prosecute the alleged aggressors,” said the women’s rights advocate.
For this story, an attempt was made to interview the head of the Secretariat for Women’s Affairs, Doris García, and the Secretary of State in charge of Human Rights, Natalie Roque. However, by the closing date of this publication no response was received from the officials.
“Where have I not looked for life? Here we are not free, I cannot live in fear and I cannot go around hiding my children all my life. I try to continue with my life, but I have never had a home again”, commented Rosa.
Rosa looked for work and moved cities seven times: Juticalpa, Danlí, Comayagua, La Libertad, La Paz, El Progreso, Puerto Cortés. To no avail, her husband always found her. “I tried to seek help from the authorities in our country but it didn’t help because I was still being threatened by one of his nephews, who was a gang member.” Finding no help in Honduras, Rosa and her three children left for the United States towards the end of 2017.
The second journey to the United States
Knowing the risks she would face, Rosa had no choice but to try to reach the United States again. This time, she and her children were detained and separated by police in Mexico. Rosa’s husband filed an international immigration alert because he took her children without consent. Despite the fact that her husband is an absentee father and was accused of violence against women, Rosa and her children were returned to Honduras.
“We were in Celaya, Guanajuato, when we were stopped by immigration. They told me I had an international migration alert. When they detained me they told me I had no right to anything for having taken my children out of the country illegally; they said it was kidnapping. I filed complaints, photographs and everything in Mexico. I cried and begged them to give me refuge and they denied me”. Rosa and her three children were separated and isolated from each other.
Violence against women as a reason for migration, in Siliezar’s opinion, is an issue that is rarely touched upon and probably made invisible on purpose. “Migration is for Honduran women, on many occasions, the only escape from a violent marriage and an absent State in the face of their repeated cry for help, (…) a State that insists on ignoring gender-based violence”.
By the end of August of this year, 32,727 Hondurans had been returned to the country, according to reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA-UN). Of these migrants, 26,397 were returned through immigration controls in the United States and its border with Mexico. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that 5% of these Hondurans need international protection.
Rosa asked for international protection from Mexican institutions after an event that triggered a nervous breakdown inside the federal prison. In the Mexican prison they tried to sexually abuse Rosa’s oldest son, who was 13 years old. “When my son told me that, I sought help in Mexico. Even though we were immigrants, we were in federal hands, how could they accept sexual abuse of a minor inside the jail?”
When Rosa and her three children returned to Honduras, she was faced with a child support lawsuit filed by her husband against her. Rosa turned her children over to her husband. “I gave my children to him because I had no way to feed them. That’s why I gave them to him, but even he, living in my own house, went to sue me.”
Rosa is in charge of supporting her three children, her brother and her mother. Her only victory in the judicial process has been a restraining order as a protective measure until the sentence is issued. “I have two children in school, my son couldn’t get into college. I want the best for my children, but I feel short financially because sales are down. We have to buy diapers, milk for my brother, who is 32 years old, because he is a baby in bed”, added Rosa….
“The reality of our women is that: impoverished, in a situation of violence and inequality, they have no legal professional to represent them in civil matters. That is the reason for the abandonment of these processes,” Siliezar said.
Complaints, criminal investigation and sentencing
In 2020, the MP received 14,744 reports of gender-based violence crimes nationally. In 2021, it received more than 23,000. In 2022, it received 21,200 complaints. And by September 2023, the MP had received more than 15,000 complaints for these types of violence.
According to data from the Judicial Branch, in 2020, 317 resolutions were issued in cases of gender-based violence, compared to 2 dismissals granted in the same year. In 2021, 517 resolutions were issued and 53 final dismissals. In 2022, 281 resolutions and 9 dismissals were filed. So far in 2023, 222 resolutions have been issued and 10 dismissals have been granted.
“Ignorance in gender issues is inexcusable in legislators and judges. Sentencing is left to the discretion of judges who are desensitized to gender violence. It is inevitable to recognize that violence predominates in the state structure, especially in the courts,” said Siliezar. In cases of domestic violence, the State has the grand task of reparation. Feminist organizations, indicated the interviewee, urge the State to increase the penal sanction and to review the figures where sentences were reduced.
Rosa’s case represents a reality for women in situations of gender-based violence in Honduras: access to the courts does not guarantee them justice because of the weakness in legislation protecting women’s rights. “This is impunity tailored to the aggressor,” Siliézar concluded.
This report was produced with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), as part of its “Express Yourself!” initiative in Latin America.