Justice turns its back on us

Honduras
01-03-2017-jlo-590.jpg

'They want to kill me because I am the one making denunciations,' says Jlo © Osman Cármaco

It’s not easy being a transgender woman in Honduras – worse still if you are defending the human rights of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Intersex (LGBTI) community.

The consequences can be fatal. Jlo Córdoba knows this only too well – having been the target of repeated assassination attempts during the past two years.

She is not alone. More than 200 members of the LGBTI community have been assassinated in Honduras since the 2009 coup, according to the local human rights organization Arcoiris (Rainbow). The country is in the grip of generalized violence as well as violence against human rights defenders. But LGBTI people have to face hostility and discrimination on many fronts – religion, family, police, army, media, the law.

Justice turns its back on them: crimes against them continue to rise and they are committed with impunity, with encouragement.

Jlo is a human rights defender whose special focus is transgender. Since the age of 16, she has been part of Arcoiris-Muñecas Trans (literally ‘Rainbow Trans Dolls’), the organization she calls ‘home’.

‘When I was little, I liked to be with girls and to play with dolls. I had to hide the dolls because my teacher would get cross if she caught me with them,’ says Jlo, a tall woman with a strong physique, and a shy but determined look.

She was born in 1990 in a poor neighbourhood of Comayagüela, the so-called twin city of Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras. Poverty is visible at every step and insecurity is a daily reality.

'People like me are rejected. Because we dress as women, they will never accept us. No politician would ever sit with us, dialogue with us'

At the age of five, her father died, and at nine, her mother became ill with HIV/AIDS. The family’s economic situation, combined with the lack of state support or access to medicine, meant there was little time to enjoy before her mother died.

Jlo hardly remembers her father, but she recalls her mother, who would take her to school, help her with her homework, and give her advice.

From the age of nine, she was looked after by her grandmother. Jlo helped her wash clothes and clean the house, and was her confidante. ‘She suspected; she knew that I liked men. But she did not reject me, just said I must be careful and go to bed early.’

Due to poverty, she was unable to stay at school and was obliged to find other means of survival to help bring up her siblings.

At the age of 16 she became involved with gay friends and got to hear about the LGBTI rights organization Arcoiris.

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‘When I decided to wear make-up and dress as a woman, my siblings accepted me for what I was. But in the wider society people like me are rejected. Because we dress as women, they will never accept us. No politician would ever sit with us, dialogue with us.

‘I decided to defend the human rights of trans people, to be a worker for human rights, because I know the dangers we face.’

Living with death every day of the year

Jlo has suffered several attempts on her life. Being a sex worker and belonging to the LGBTI community makes her doubly vulnerable.

‘I am in danger as a sex worker and a trans woman. When you get into a man’s car you don’t know who he is.’

In 2014 a Honduran Army soldier shot her in the back. Although she reported it to the Office of the Public Prosecutor for Human Rights, it became just another incident in a long catalogue of impunity.

More than 96 per cent of such cases go unpunished, in spite of the fact that Honduras has an international commitment to combat this scourge. The country does not comply with its duty before the UN’s Council for Human Rights to investigate cases involving the LGBTI community.

‘On 29 May 2016 I suffered another attack. A man I didn’t know came up to me and shot me in the chest. I thought I was going to die. My companions, who took me to hospital, saved my life,’ she says.

Jlo thinks that these repeated attempts to kill her have to do with her human rights activism.

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‘When you go to the Public Ministry to denounce soldiers or police officers, there are people there who warn them. I think this is why they want to kill me: because I am supporting trans women and I am the one who makes the denunciations.’

Then, on 24 October 2016, came another attack. ‘An individual came up to me, pointed a pistol at me. I asked him: why? I hadn’t done anything to him. But he shot me. My companions shouted for the police to come, but to no avail.’

She was within an inch her life. The solidarity of her trans comrades who came to her rescue and took her to hospital once more saved her life. ‘I was being suffocated by my own blood. In hospital they took out the blood and I survived.’

On 8 December 2016, at around two in the morning, she was with another trans woman, Chanel, in the centre of Tegucigalpa, a few steps away from the United Nations building. Shots rang out from a nearby truck and Chanel was wounded in the lung and arm.

Donny Reyes, co-ordinator of Arcoiris, is of the opinion that Jlo was the intended target because of the way in which the incident occurred.

Her passion

What keeps Jlo going?

‘I like to defend the LGBTI community, I love it, I value it and I want those who commit hate crimes, who do harm, to be punished,’ she says.

Other trans women have been her inspiration. Especially Angie Ferreira and Paola Barraza: ‘They inspired me, they were two brave people in the gay community – but they were killed.’

Angie died from bullet wounds in June 2015, shot several times by a man from a vehicle; her body was left on a street in Comayagüela. Paola, meanwhile, was assassinated in her own house on 24 January 2016, when unknown persons knocked at her door and shot her five times in the head and chest.

‘I have reported several crimes to the Office of the Public Prosecutor for Human Rights, among them the case of Nohelia, a companion who was beaten by a police officer. They managed to find the culprit and he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. But he’s a dangerous man, he can give orders to finish his work with me.’

Jlo remains in no doubt that her work is important and that LGBTI human rights defenders must be protected. ‘Among the things that the State must do is to establish the principle of protected testimony. Instead it kills us.’

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Dina Meza is a Honduran human rights journalist based in Tegucigalpa. This interview was arranged with the help of the international organization Front Line Defenders, which works in solidarity with Arcoiris.