In the Latin America of the 1980s, everyone knew who was behind the death squads and forced disappearances. In the new Honduras, after the coup and the rise of the drug gangs, the state is a weakened organism; it is perhaps no surprise that who has been disappeared, and who disappeared them, is a greater mystery now. But as Daniel Vicente Caravantes shows here, the state and its agents are often still to blame.
“Nubia, can you take me home?”
Nubia Carbajal repeats “God willing!” out loud as she walks around the little house where she has been holed up since November of 2011. Forty-three years old, tight jeans, spaghetti strap tank top, white skin with freckles on her shoulders, Nubia Carbajal is a whirlwind, a woman who every day thinks about just one thing: finding her disappeared husband.
We are in a neighborhood that has swallowed half a hill on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the world’s most violent city according to homicide rates. If the World Health Organization wanted to, they could declare a pandemic in the city. There were more than 160 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2012 and 2013. The entire country is not far behind. Honduras, this big swathe of land that occupies a good part of Central America’s midsection, is the world’s most violent country, and since 2009 when the military — allied with politicians, police and the justice department — took president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya out of his house, in his pajamas, and forced him out of the country, chaos has reigned here. It is a chaos that, like a virus, threatens to wipe out the Honduran people, and infects them and damages them every day. It is normalized violence; the fury of the gangs, the brutality of the drug traffickers, and the impunity of corrupt police. It is an onslaught that on August 31, 2011, shocked Nubia Carbajal and her entire family when Reynaldo Cruz Palma, her husband and a community activist, went missing at the hands of alleged police officers wearing hoods.
If Reynaldo Cruz Palma had left alone that morning of August 31, there would not have been a witness to his kidnapping and disappearance. But Reynaldo and Nubia, married for 25 years, were going together to pay a loan at the bank when Reynaldo noticed a car was following them. Reynaldo and Nubia and their four children lived in Ciudad Planeta, a working class community better known as “La Planeta”. It is a community dominated by the Hollywood Gangster crew of the Barrio 18 gang. Gangs have been prominent there since the late 1990s.
When Reynaldo and Nubia left the bank, the vehicle was still there.
“Take it easy,” Reynaldo told her, “We don’t have anything to fear because we aren’t doing anything wrong.”
Cautious, the couple got on a bus headed toward downtown. They intended to camouflage themselves amongst the passengers. When the car stopped following them, Nubia breathed a sigh of relief. But a kilometer before reaching their destination, the bus driver braked suddenly. A gray, king cab truck with tinted windows was cutting him off from the side. At first Nubia thought it was a robbery, but quickly realized the hooded men, armed with AK-47s, were after her husband. That moment was a whirlwind. One hooded man stuck half his body in the cab of the bus and ripped the keys from the dashboard. Another hooded man cleared people out, yelling. A third grabbed Reynaldo while Nubia begged for mercy. Still another, who knows where he came from, put the barrel of his rifle to Nubia’s temple.
“Get back. It’s not about you! It’s about him!”, two furious eyes told her.
The last words Nubia remembers her husband saying were these: “But what happened? I’m not even armed…”.
When Reynaldo put his hands up, one of the hooded men tied them behind his back. The other draped a black cloth over his head. Blind, his hands bound, Reynaldo fell into the back seat of the truck. The vehicle took off quickly. Nubia yelled three times, “Help!”, before falling to her knees in the street, defeated. Since then, Reynaldo Cruz Palma has turned into the most recognizable face of Honduras’ newly disappeared.
Nubia made a police report though no one wanted to take it down. Over the following weeks she and her children were pursued in the neighborhood by a gray, king cab truck. After four months of harassment, they decided to leave.
“Are you scared to go home?” I ask Nubia, who still does not think of herself as a widow and lives with the pain of not knowing if her husband is dead or alive.
Sometimes she dreams: “I imagine they are holding him prisoner somewhere, in some clandestine prison, doing I don’t know what”.
Nubia’s words hearken back to a common past. In the 1980s, forced disappearances were the fashion among the Latin American dictatorships. But the strategy turned against them when the cause of the disappeared became a banner for organizations defending human rights. In Panama, the singer-songwriter Ruben Blades even composed a song, “Disappearances”, that to date is like a hymn for thousands of lost family members who live with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to their relatives.
In the world’s most violent region, in the 1980s, there were thousands of disappearances. Guatemala had more than 40,000; El Salvador, more than 10,000; and in Honduras, which [unlike the others]did not have a war, in 1993 184 cases were tallied, with the idea of investigating many more. The investigation never happened.
More than 30 years after the dictatorships, there are new disappearances in this region. And in the rest of the world as well. In 1980, the United Nations created a Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), a monitoring office that also counts today’s disappearances. Up to August 2014, that office counts more than 50,000 disappearances in 80 countries in the world. In countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the new disappearances can be explained thanks to violence from gangs, organized crime, drug trafficking… but also the old phantoms of the past. At least this is happening in Honduras. The United Nations registers only 129 cases in Honduras as “the number of open cases in the WGEID since its creation in 1980, which is to say those cases where the fate or whereabouts of the person has not been clarified,” says Ariel Dulitzky, president of the office that monitors disappearances in the world. The UN is fed by cases presented by NGOs or relatives of the disappeared. Between 2010 and 2014, Honduras’ Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared (Cofadeh) reported 10 new cases of forced disappearances. Reynaldo Cruz Palma’s case is emblematic.
The disappearances have returned to Central America’s northern triangle, the most violent region in the world. The problem is quantifying them. But perhaps the problem is also getting the authorities to recognize the phenomenon. In El Salvador, the National Civil Police created statistics up until 2012. It had to do with the fact that that year they registered more than 1,300 complaints, of which 600 cases still have the “disappeared” tag and 128 correspond with people who were found dead. In Guatemala, there is concern over the reports of thousands of disappeared children. In 2013 alone they registered more than 1,000 cases, and authorities assume that the theft of children has to do with human trafficking or even organ trafficking. But in Honduras, the most violent country in the world, it is as if Nubia Carbajal’s story is a lie. For the government, the disappeared are extinct individuals and therefore do not matter. But for his family, Reynaldo Cruz Palma did exist and does matter.
“No way are we going there,” Nubia says to me, “We’ve lost everything. They are there, and since they took Reynaldo away they are after us. They are waiting to find us to…”
“To stop us from causing trouble.”
If anyone should know how many disappearances there are in San Pedro Sula — what happened to them, with their cases — it is Commissioner Manuel Calderon, the regional chief of the National Division of Criminal Investigations (DNIC). In Commissioner Calderon’s office there is an altar to weapons. It is a little wooden boat with small sails made of white cloth that stands in the middle of some shelves decorated with bullets of many calibers. With a little imagination, the boat navigates a turbulent sea of bullets (or the boat navigates through all of the dead in Honduras, where more than 80 percent of the assassinations are committed by firearms). On one side, the calm waters: “They are .22 bullets,” says the commissioner as he picks up a small bullet between his fingers. “This strikes a person and is capable of drowning him.” He puts his hand around his throat. On the rest of the altar there are “9 millimeters, .45s, .47s, a collection of 7.72, armored tanks, knives.”
“You like bullets, commissioner.”
The commissioner laughs.
If anyone should know how many disappearances there are in San Pedro Sula and the northeast of Honduras, it is Commissioner Calderon. Twenty-five years as a policeman, a short, dark-haired officer who is an expert in intelligence gathering. There is a reason he is chief of the DNIC, the top investigative division. Because of his dark past (in the 80s he was used as a political spy), he is also the most feared. However, the DNIC investigates everything. Or almost everything. Or at least its role is to investigate, even though the attorney general, Luis Alberto Rubi, dared to declare that 80 percent of the crimes in Honduras go unpunished because of a lack of investigation. “Crime has flooded us,” he said in front of Honduras’ congress in April of this year. On paper, the attorney’s office leads investigations, but in practice it is the police and the DNIC that are in control. Weeks after his confession, Attorney Rubi was dismissed by an investigative committee, put in place by the same Honduran congress that had applauded his hint of honesty.
“How many disappearances are there in this city, commissioner?”
“Disappearances? That doesn’t exist here. Here we have deaths.”
“There are no disappearances?”
“That is always in the minds of the same people who say that what happened here was a coup d’etat. But here, because of political questions, there are no disappearances. That has all been discarded. Because of that issue, here there are no disappearances. Here only in their minds is there persecution.”
For some reason, Commissioner Calderon associates the issue of the disappearances with the new accusations against authorities for cases of forced disappearances. I am talking to him about other cases, cases that have to do with gangs, with drug traffickers, with the run of the mill Central American violence, and not necessarily with accusations against the authorities.
“Here there are complaints of people who disappear, but for several reasons: They went to the United States, or a girl takes off with a boy, or kids run away because of abuse… and there is a percentage that has to do with the Maras[gangs]. When the boys don’t want to get involved with the Maras, they grab them, kidnap them, and make them disappear. It’s a percentage, a small one.”
“What is the percentage? Could you give me a number?”
“Here the problem is that if there is a case of a disappearance that has an impact, then we work on it until it is resolved, right? But from that to keeping statistics, statistics…”
“You don’t keep statistics on the reports of disappearances?”
“Or rather, am I going to say: ‘No, look there were 10 disappearances this month’? No. It’s not like that.”
“Here in San Pedro Sula there are at least two cases that point to the police as the perpetrators of forced disappearances.”
“No, that is over. Those were different times. Now the police have a different mentality, which is to serve. What has happened is that several criminals have used police uniforms, even DNIC uniforms. So people believe it is the police…”
Since Commissioner Manuel Calderon does not have numbers and it is difficult for him to talk about the cases, I decide to go to Ciudad Planeta, the neighborhood that Nubia Carbajal is so scared of, so the residents and perhaps the gang members themselves can talk to me about the disappeared. La Planeta is a vast flatland dotted with working class homes, spread out next to a highway that leads from the town of La Lima to the town of San Pedro Sula. The entrance to the neighborhood is nothing more than a rusted sign: “Ciudad Planeta”.
Close by there is a dilapidated funeral home, soot on the roof, metal gate and fence. A little further up is a school where an administrator is trying to save something that seems beyond saving. Sooner or later, many of the students will turn into gang members. Deeper in La Planeta is a police station. “Station Number Five”, the sign says. It is isolated, with no houses close by. An ironic image: It is as if no one wants to live close to this police station.
Entering La Planeta is like entering any Central American neighborhood dominated by gangs: There is fear, there are stares, there is graffiti on the walls of the houses. A strange van calls attention, especially one that knows the way to Reynaldo Cruz Palma’s house. A couple kids follow the van on bikes. Later, a resident will tell me those kids stand lookout.
The van brakes. I get out. A hand comes out of nowhere and grabs my forearm. In the street there is hardly a soul, just a couple people cooling themselves in shade of a few trees. Even at this, my guide yells so everyone can hear: “Hello, amigo!”, she says,”Come! I will show the house!” Yesenia, a friend of Nubia Carbajal, leads me up a narrow alley. In the middle of the alley there is a green house with a barred gate. It is abandoned. Inside there is a dry fountain. A large parking area. The floor is covered with a thick layer of dust.
“Ok, journalist, welcome to La Planeta,” says Yesenia, whispering. “You have five minutes to take pictures. Hurry! The boys will already be on their way!”
This is the house that Nubia kept with her husband for 25 years. On one of the walls there are five holes that resemble the holes bullets make.
“The men who took Reynaldo later came by to shoot up his house. This is the evidence,” says Yesenia before returning to the main street. Yesenia keeps lookout. She looks both ways up the avenue while I contemplate the details of the house. Time is up on Yesenia’s watch and again she appears out of nowhere. She pulls me by the arm and invites me to leave. I ask for more time because I want to speak with the neighbors, with the kids, but she says that is impossible.
“The van is coming now. Get in and don’t talk to anyone. Get off downtown. The kids have already been alerted.”
There are two kids a block away. Loose shirts, jeans, white tennis shoes. One has long pony tail that contrasts with the short sides and the mohawk that rises in middle of his scalp. He is dark-haired and short. The other is thin, his head shaved, a skeletal face, a thin mustache. The first carries in his hand what I suspect to be some kind of machine gun. It looks like a miniature Uzi. Another has something that looks like the butt of a pistol sticking out of his waistband. The van arrives. Yesenia puts me in it.
“Get this kid out of here for me!” she tells the driver.
Yesenia does not say goodbye as the van drives away. When we go past the boys, they do not take their eyes off me. The van is taking a course to leave the neighborhood and its trajectory draws a square. The kids run and pursue the van, curious about the stranger who is riding in the window seat, but after two stops they get tired. They give up.
“Have a good one, kid. Now you can take it easy.”
I ask Nubia why she does not think that it was these kids who are responsible for Reynaldo’s disappearance, since that seems a reasonable explanation. In La Planeta, or in other similar communities in Honduras, it is common to find clandestine cemeteries, bewitched tombs that the gangs use to hide their victims. In El Salvador, for example, most of the cases of the disappeared — which later reappear, spat out by the earth — have to do with the fury of the gangs, with this method of burying victims to hide the assassinations. The victims are usually informants who turned someone in the neighborhood over to the cops, traitors who want out of the neighborhood, girls who get involved with the opposing gang, people being extorted who do not pay their fee…
“The kids don’t get involved with people from the community. They never do it and they respected Reynaldo. The people who threatened Reynaldo before taking him away were the police,” Nubia insists.
If Commissioner Manuel Calderon, the regional chief of the DNIC, does not have information about missing people in San Pedro Sula, and in La Planeta one cannot ask questions, I decide to go to the city morgue to get a number. In the morgues there is almost always a number on the disappeared, and it is the place where relatives go to ask after people they are looking for.
The morgue in San Pedro Sula is a small, two-story building with an abandoned wing on the second floor. Honduras has only three morgues, and in this one 50 percent of the cadavers the country produces in a year are concentrated.
In 2013, they processed more than 3,200 bodies here. Eighty percent of them were homicide cases. If those nearly 2,000 cadavers had been found in one place, from who knows what settling of scores between gang members or drug traffickers or corrupt police officers, it would be called a massacre.
Outside the morgue, El Tranca and a group of undertakers have found a business in death. The owners of the funeral homes they work for have even agreed to split up the money according to shifts. El Tranca works from 6 to 10 in the morning. In this city, just picking up a cadaver is dangerous. El Tranca knows it. They killed a friend of his a few days ago while he was offering funeral services to a family that had arrived to pick up two “fresh” — according to El Tranca’s word — cadavers. It is presumed that the killers were assassins who decided to kill the entire family.
El Tranca gets angry when business is slow at the morgue. He also gets angry when he realizes that he is offering his services in vain. And that, talking to hear himself talk, is what always happens when relatives of the disappeared arrive to ask questions. El Tranca cannot sell a casket for a body that does not exist. He cannot offer a wake for an absent body. El Tranca — a tall, willowy, emaciated old man, his face that of living death — is also like the Honduran government, which does not care much about the disappeared either.
In a lapse of three hours, outside the morgue, four families have shown up looking for their disappeared. A door-to-door salesman who entered a neighborhood controlled by the MS13 gang and was never seen alive again; a girl who left home one day and never came back from school; a taxi driver who left to drive a few laps in a car race, but after a few hours no one ever heard anything more from him again; a woman who set out to look for her disappeared son in a neighborhood controlled by the Barrio 18 gang; for making the rounds in that area she ended up disappeared herself.
It was August of 2014 when it occurred to an official from Judicial Morgue to put out a report on disappeared people. From that idea arose another idea: Create a mural where the photos of people reported as disappeared could be exhibited. The idea evolved: get information from relatives of the disappeared and create a list. Forty-two cases reported since August of 2014. In this corner of the world, registering just 42 reports in a forensics office sounds crazy. Because in Honduras there are high levels of violence. That of the gangs, who also have their clandestine cemeteries. That of the drug traffickers, who every once in a while settle scores and, according to the government, are responsible for most of the homicides. That of many of the police, denounced as kidnappers, assassins, extorters… Just 42 reports sounds crazy. In El Salvador alone, in 2013, the legal medicine department registered 1,300 reports of disappeared people. Statistics matter, not just to denounce violence but to demand justice. They matter for the families’ cases, or at least so the families have a place where there is the constant that their relatives were alive up until the day of their disappearance, or at least so that if one day an unidentified cadaver arrives with the evidence of being “Juanito” or “Maria”, there is a record that makes them think of it as the cadaver of Juanito or perhaps Maria.
Reynaldo Cruz Palma, when they took him away, was the president of the neighborhood board in La Planeta. In a community dominated by gang members, a leader must mediate amidst a lack of trust: a lack of trust by the gangs themselves, who are capable of killing if they suspect someone in the community has betrayed them to the police; or vice versa, if the police suspect community members are allied with the gangs.
Reynaldo Cruz Palma was a mediator. He asked for peace in his neighborhood by demanding respect for human rights. That is what three relatives say, along with a neighbor and the mayor of the town La Lima, Astor Amaya Fuentes, who once employed Reynaldo to work towards coexistence in the neighborhood.
Two months before his disappearance, the police carried out an operation in La Planeta that left seven alleged gang members dead in a “confrontation”. That is the way the episode was passed off in Honduran media outlets: as a confrontation. The strange part is that the dead appeared with bullet wounds to head, chest or in the back. The bullet holes left in at least one wall sketch a half moon painted in blood. That is the trajectory the body took, sliding down the wall until it hit the floor. In 2013, the case left five police officers charged with crimes of an illegal search of a home, abuse of authority, and murder, but in 2011, talking about these “confrontations” and accusing police of abuse was too risky, but Reynaldo Cruz Palma dared to speak out. In mid-July of that year he was interviewed on the neighborhood’s soccer field by the Honduran television station TVC. Shortly before, Pepe Lobo, the president of Honduras, had said the community was “free” of gangs.
The “confrontation” had occurred less than a month earlier. In the interview, next to Reynaldo was Juan Orlando Hernandez, then the president of the Honduran congress. He had traveled from the capital Tegucigalpa to industrial city of La Planeta to confirm what Pepe Lobo had said. It is five hours on the highway between one place and the other. Around that time, Juan Orlando Hernandez was already campaigning for the 2014 presidential election. On that television program, sitting next to the president of congress, the future president of Honduras, Reynaldo complained that in La Planeta there had been a massacre. He demanded that the repression in La Planeta by stopped and demanded justice in the case. Many thought Reynaldo Cruz Palma had spoken too freely.
In the following weeks, a few police officers followed Reynaldo Cruz Palma and harassed him in the street and at his home business. Security police threatened him and an officer even hit him at his business before taking him away under arrest for disturbing the peace. According to Nubia Carbajal, on the night of August 27, 2011, four days before he disappeared, Reynaldo was helping a customer and police arrived to hassle his clients. Her husband spoke out and they consequently arrested him. A neighbor took a picture, a bit out of focus, of the altercation, in which policeman can be seen struggling with Reynaldo, who is already handcuffed. Nubia Carvajal still remembers that on that night she had a feeling something more serious was going to happen to her husband. She was not wrong.
If regional chief of the DNIC of San Pedro Sula does not have figures on the disappeared, and in La Planeta no one can talk, and at the Judicial Morgue there are 42 reported cases of disappearances, I decide to travel to Tegucigalpa, the capital of the country, to ask authorities for a more convincing figure. National. Official.
Maybe the Public Prosecutor’s Office has those figures … but there are none. The Public Prosecutor’s Office says that between 2009 and 2014, they have only registered 23 cases of disappearances. That is an average of one case every three months over the last five years. If the 42 reports at the Judicial Morgue in San Pedro Sula come up short, the 23 official cases registered by the Public Prosecutor’s Office are humiliating.
Maybe the Medical Forensics Office has more information … but it does not. The official response from Medical Forensics is that phenomenon closest to disappearances is the number of unidentified cadavers that end up buried in mass graves. In July of 2014, 22 unidentified bodies were reported found in mass graves. In October of 2014, they reported exhuming 17 unidentified cadavers.
For the Public Prosecutor’s Office, for the Medical Forensics Office, disappearances do not exist as a problem. When asked for an overarching figure that puts the problem in perspective, it as if one is asking for the number of squirrels run over on Francisco Morazan Boulevard, the capital’s most popular tourist strip. Or rather, improbable information. Impossible. Information that one would compile because no one cares either way if every day they run over three, five, ten squirrels.
If the regional chief of the DNIC in San Pedro Sula does not have information, and nor does the Public Prosecutor’s Office nor the Medical Forensics Office, maybe the National Police does… but they do not. Commissioner Juan Lopez Roche, spokesman for the Honduran National Police, responds that the question about that statistic should be put to the Honduran National Committee on Human Rights. I tell him I want a response from the chief of police, Commissioner Ramon Antonio Sabillon, but to date Sabillon is still not answering his telephone.
If neither the police nor the attorney’s office nor Legal Medicine have information, maybe the group that everyone signals as the scapegoat, the National Commission on Human Rights, has something. Maybe because the term “disappeared” in Honduras brings to mind a book that in Honduras is like the Bible. In 1993, the then Commission on Human Rights published the book ‘The Facts that Speak for Themselves’. In it are the stories of 184 cases of forced disappearances that occurred in the 80s. The book accuses the government and a special military group — the 3-16 Commando Group, a death squad through which everyone from the former security minister to many other officials who have run the police in the past ten years paraded — as the authors behind most of the disappearances.
Maybe Roberto Herrera, the new national commissioner on human rights, has up-to-date numbers… but he does not. Through his spokesperson, Julio Velazquez, the commissioner responds that “a statistic on the number of people who have disappeared because of current violence does not exist. Right now we are working on a statistic that assess the issue of Honduran migrants who disappear on their way to the United States, but we do not have anything on what you are asking for”.
Apart from officials numbers, there are two other lists by human rights organizations of cases of people who have disappeared. One is Honduras’ Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared (Cofadeh). Between 2009 and 2014, Cofadeh has registered 10 cases of forced disappearances in which relatives have cited the police and army as the intellectual and material authors of the disappearances. Among these cases is that of Reynaldo Cruz Palma. Another list is managed by the Human Rights Committee of the Aguan Valley, which monitors the conflict over land between peasant farmers and landowners. According to this list, between 2009 and 2011, 128 people have been assassinated in battles related to the struggle over African palm plantations. This committee also registers the forced disappearance of five peasant activists, allegedly at the hands of the landowners’ guards.
For almost everyone in Honduras, “disappeared” is just someone who has been kidnapped by an agent of the government or an armed group in cooperation with the government, which is the case of the landowners’ guards at the African palm ranches. For almost everyone in Honduras, the high levels of violence drown out common violence. To exist it is not enough to be a victim, but rather one must be a good victim. If the government is making people disappear, what do others that disappear at the hands of gangs and drug traffickers matter.
If no one has an official and convincing figure on the new disappearances in Honduras, all that is left is letting the relatives of the disappeared guide us and together with them find other relatives of the disappeared. I decide to follow the advice of Nubia Carbajal, who in 2012 led a group of mothers, wives and sisters of the disappeared.
I return to downtown San Pedro Sula, to the dining room of a restaurant located next to the park. Nubia Carbajal is with a group of friends who appear to have stayed for lunch. But it is only after the introductions, after they clear up doubts — Are you really a journalist? Why do you want to know who we are and what happened to us? — does the group reveal its true identity. They are united by an undesired bond. It is as if they are members of a club that does not exist (at least not formally): a club of mothers, wives, sisters and relatives of San Pedro Sula’s disappeared, a city where more 160 or every 100,000 people are killed.
We already know what happened to Nubia. Claudia’s brother Oscar disappeared in November of the same year. Like Reynaldo, they presume Oscar was taken away by the police. Gladys, a woman with glasses, the oldest in the group, lost her kids Abdala, Angel and Mario in September 2010. Nubia, who perhaps has indicated that the disappeared where authorities are not accused may not carry the same weight for the media, ask that I pay special attention to Gladys’ case. Even more attention than Reynaldo’s case, because she knows that at least hers has been showcased in the country’s newspapers, by human rights organizations, and by the international press. Gladys’ case, however, is a case where 10 people disappeared, and not even that, the disappearance of ten people, makes an impression on San Pedro Sula or Honduras.
“What case are you talking about?”
The lawyer Rene Diaz, San Pedro Sula’s regional coordinator of attorneys, is surprised. The lawyer Rene Diaz is the final hope for an official number on Honduras’ newly disappeared. But he does not have one, and the lawyer gets frustrated towards the beginning of our conversation. He already does not even remember this case that seems like a scene from a movie, in which ten people disappeared one night without a trace. The lawyer looks like someone searching his head for the lost pieces of his bad memory, and the images and memories do not show up.
La Cumbre, the Triminio brothers, September 2010, ten people… None of these pieces mean anything to him.
I tell him that this a surprising case. One day ten people disappear, one of them a public figure with a media presence, a young successful businessman, and here it is as if nothing had happened.
“It’s just that it was a long time ago. 2010 you say?”
“Yes. Among the disappeared were a few Mexican citizens.”
Mexicans! This piece of the puzzle causes the coordinator of attorneys to furrow his brow, raise his eyebrows and straighten his back. He finally remembers the case.
“It’s a complicated case,” he says,”We think drugs trafficking is behind it.”
In September 2010, Abdala Trimino — the son of Gladys Villata, the oldest woman in the club of mothers, wives and sisters of the newly disappeared — was running the family’s real estate business. One day, a Mexican citizen looked up the Triminios to rent a luxurious house in a part of town known as La Cumbre, (an area) surrounded by poor communities. Mara Salvatrucha territory.
The renting of the house was an expedited transaction. They paid on Friday and on Saturday the Mexicans moved in. On Monday, September 13, one of the Mexicans called Abdala Triminio to report a problem. He asked that he come up to La Cumbre, but Abdala Triminio was not available at the moment. Minutes after the call, they arrived at the office to pick him up, because they wanted to solve their problem with the neighbors. Abdala went with them, but hours passed and he never again communicated with his wife.
At six in the afternoon that Monday, Angel, Abdala’s brother, and Carlos Coello, a childhood friend of theirs, went up to La Cumbre to bring back Abdala. The Triminios and their friend are probably the most unlucky guys in the world. Or perhaps they were there at the worst possible time. Angel was talking to his brother-in-law on a cell phone when the call was dropped. The last sentence he heard was: “I’m not leaving here without my brother!”
At seven at night, the family went to “La Primera”, as the police station in the city of San Pedro Sula is known, and filed a report. The shift officer filed the complaint, but said he could not send patrol cars to that area because it was too dangerous. At 11 in the morning of the following day, the police mounted an operation that many remember like a scene from a movie. That is what two journalists said who covered the story for the crime sections of their newspapers: “It was an operation from a movie. It lasted three hours and they didn’t find anything but three documents on one of the roofs,” said one of the journalists. The earth had swallowed the Triminio brothers and the Mexicans in less than 24 hours. Conspiracy theories, some even hold by the Attorney’s Office, indicate that this operation was to hide what was in that house, including ten people, five of them Mexican citizens.
Drug trafficking in Honduras also makes people disappear. A year ago, San Pedro Sula’s chief of police told El Faro that this city is like a brain, the neurological base for drugs run up from South American, with a layover in Honduras before they make the jump into Mexico. The United Nations has said that 80 percent of the drugs consumed in the United States must first pass through Honduras, Central America’s great bodega. From the Atlantida province, in a straight line from Puerto Cortez, Honduras is a heaving sea of drug traffickers, corrupt police, and bands that make raids on the drug trade, whether it is stealing drugs headed north or stealing money headed south. In the past two years, Honduran newspapers have reported the disappearance of half a dozen Mexican pilots who have landed at airports in Golozon (in the city of La Ceiba, Atlantida) or in the airport at Roatan (a Caribbean island). There has not been a sign of the pilots in Honduras or Mexico. Their last trace was the airplanes they piloted before they landed and then disappeared.
The lawyer Nery Diaz talks on the phone to attorney who is managing the case of the Triminio brothers. What his underling tells him on the phone reminds him of another case. Two days after the disappearance, a group made up of specialists in forensics and detectives went up to La Cumbre to identity a clandestine cemetery. They found the cemetery and the mounds of earth that indicated the points of burial. However, what was under the earth were the decomposing bodies of stray dogs. For lawyer Nery Diaz, that was a message the captors were sending to someone else.
“The family of the disappeared claims police negligence in this case. For example, that they didn’t look into the complaint on the day of the disappearances…” I say to lawyer Nery Diaz.
“The police should have gone. Because it was the preventative police, they had to go.”
When these disappearances occurred, the lawyer Nery Diaz was in the Attorney’s Generals Human Rights Unit. In fact, he was there for almost four years. This unit is comprised of specialist attorneys who investigate complaints made against the police. Nery Diaz knows very well how the bad elements of the Honduran police are, and how they act.
“The relatives also complained that there was negligence in the investigation, like the fact that they changed the report the Triminio family made. The family reported three missing people, but the complaint the police have on file on has two disappeared people.”
“It should be seen if there is some accountability. All of a sudden there is lot of conjecture that didn’t come at the time.”
“What was in that house that night that caused the police to cross their arms? Why didn’t move until so late, rolling out an operation that included helicopters?”
“It’s an area controlled by the MS gang and it’s very dangerous. Anyone who enters will get it… There has to be a good-sized crew. If you enter alone I don’t think you will come out. The geography is very broken up, valleys, hills…”
“You have made cases against police officers. Do you think they are capable of altering a crime scene, an investigation, or obstructing an operation?”
“I’m not going to run the risk of conjecture. We will have to see what the investigations say.”
“But do you think they are capable? Or, in other reported cases, like that of the community leader in La Planeta Reynaldo Cruz Palma, do you think police are capable of making people disappear?”
The lawyer Nery Diaz is surprised to hear the name Reynaldo Cruz Palma. La Planeta. He knows the case very well.
“As I said to you, the investigations speak for themselves. You would have to look at the investigations. Now, in the case of Cruz Palma, I can’t say to you if it was effectively police or gang members dressed as police. The report is that it was possibly police. We have not been able to figure out who it was. But the case is open.”
“Allow me to insist. Do you think some Honduran police officers are capable of making people disappear?”
“It would be irresponsible to throw out a comment that is not backed by an investigation. I can talk to you about one case and say to you: Yes, it was the police. It’s documented. Like 2011, on May 25th, the police killed seven people, seven gang members in La Planeta. I worked on that investigation and in La Planeta we accused seven members of the police of those killings.”
The lawyer Nery Diaz is talking about the killings that Nubia Carbajal’s husband Reynaldo Cruz Palma denounced before alleged police officers wearing hoods took him away.
Gladys Villalta’s house is located in an upper middle class neighborhood in San Pedro Sula. Outside, the house has a well-kept garden and deck to get fresh air. Inside, the walls of the house, the doors of the rooms, the kitchen, the windows, are covered with handwritten papers, imploring God: “Never have the just gone without a response,” says one of the signs, under a picture of her disappeared sons.
The last time I saw Nubia Carbajal, Reynaldo Cruz Palma’s wife, she sent me to follow her friend Gladys’ Villalta’s case. Amongst the relatives of the disappeared, a kind of brotherhood is formed. In 2012, Nubia and Gladys organized marches in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa to demand justice for their cases. The even marched to the presidential palace, but then-president Porifio “Pepe” Lobo did not meet with them. Nubia and Gladys searched out help at the Cofadeh. Nubia and Gladys became very good friends, but over time their strength ran out, their fears got stronger, and the violence they denounce has turned into a shadow looming over them.
Today, on the four walls of Gladys’ living room, on the doors and windows, in the hallways, on the windows in the kitchen, on the doors of the rooms and bathrooms, she still has hand written signs written, imploring God. They all say the same thing, that God return her children alive. “But four years have passed and I don’t want to think about it anymore… At least I would like them to tell me where they are,” Gladys says.
Gladys, different than in 2012, is now scared of continuing to denounce them. Nubia Carbajal, her friend, has now had to disappear on her own accord. In 2013, they almost killed one of Nubia’s kids. Unidentified subjects chased him and shot him nine times. The kid was saved by a miracle. Months later, her son-in-law was assassinated by unidentified subjects. She thinks it was the police. The same ones who have been pursuing her since 2011 for reporting them, for demanding to know where her husband was. Nubia now lives outside Honduras, in an unknown place, exiled, hidden, off the radar of her enemy.
Since no one in Honduras has numbers on the disappeared, I decide to go back to San Pedro Sula’s Judicial Morgue. The morgues in the world’s most violent region are where, sooner or later, families will come to look for their disappeared relatives.
Someone has hung photographs on one of the posts at the bus stop next to the morgue. They are the smiling faces of two youngsters. Osmany, 15 years old. Freddy, 17.
Freddy’s mother, along with another woman, arrived to a Chinese food restaurant close to downtown. She met the other woman more than a month ago, in one of the forests, while she was looking for a clue about where her son is. Fredy’s mother is another Nubia. Osmany’s mother is another Gladys. They are the new members of San Pedro Sula’s club of mothers of the disappeared.
Daniel Valencia Caravantes Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard
13 Jan 2015