May 29, 2009

I. Summary

Two policemen grabbed me and put me in a car and punched me in the face. They took us to the [Manchén] police station and shoved us into the cells.... From the moment they pulled us out of the car at the station till they got us inside, they hit us and dragged us all. When we got there and while they put our names in a book, they pushed us to the floor, and hit our faces and hit us with batons. They also tried to push us down the stairs. They called us culeros [faggots]. On the way to the cell one of them [police officers] broke a broomstick against my back.
— Joshua, age 19, Tegucigalpa, December 5, 2008

In June 2008, Honduras supported a Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). Honduras, with the rest of the OAS, expressed its concern over violence faced by people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and made a public commitment to end it.

In June 2009, Honduras is hosting the 39th General Assembly of the OAS in San Pedro Sula under the theme “Toward a Culture of Non-Violence.” In the proposed draft resolution, the states declare their commitment “to promote, within a framework of the rule of law, a culture of peace and non-violence” and specifically note “the importance of adopting measures necessary to prevent, impede, and punish violence ... against women, and groups in vulnerable situations.”

While Honduran authorities have been prompt in signing international agreements pledging to curb violence and protect vulnerable groups, attacks on transgender people—often targeted because their looks and demeanor challenge prevailing sex-role stereotypes—continue to be commonplace in the country.

Nearly every transgender person Human Rights Watch interviewed during research in Honduras in late 2008 and early 2009 spoke of harassment, beatings, and ill treatment at the hands of police. And bias-motivated attacks on transgender individuals by private actors are endemic. At least 17 travestis have been killed in public places in Honduras since 2004; many more have been beaten, stabbed, or shot.

Transgender people also spoke of police inaction and failure to investigate cases that they have registered with the police.

The problems begin with Honduran law itself. Provisions of one of the key laws governing policing in Honduras, the Law on Police and Social Affairs (Ley de Policía y de Convivencia Social), are vaguely worded and all but invite arbitrary enforcement by the police.

Article 99 of the law mentions categories of people that police can arrest as “vagabonds”; these include “street people, scoundrels, street prostitutes, drug addicts, drunkards, and gamblers.” Article 142 gives police the authority to arrest anyone who “exhibits total nudity or goes against modesty, proper conduct and public morals ... and disturbs the neighbors’ tranquility with their immoral conduct.” The law does not give further explanation of these terms. No jurisprudence exists to detail the understanding of them.

As this report documents, police often use these provisions to justify harassing and arbitrarily arresting transgender people. The provisions also encourage arrests by Honduran police of transgender people engaged in sex work, itself not a crime under Honduran law.

Honduras has an obligation under international law to apply its laws in an impartial and non-discriminatory manner. Courts in other Latin American countries, like Colombia and Argentina, have struck down comparable laws on the grounds that concepts like “public morals” are too vague and invite discriminatory treatment.

Another factor contributing to ongoing violence against transgender people is impunity. Inefficiency and ineffectiveness in police investigations runs like a thread through all Honduran criminal investigations but they are a particular problem in cases involving violence against transgender people. We are aware of no successful prosecutions of police accused of violence against transgender people over the past five years in Honduras. No one has been prosecuted for any of the 17 murders of transgender people.

When cases are not properly investigated and perpetrators are not adequately punished, the government sends a message to society that it condones violence. It also sends a message to victims that initiating complaints will not result in convictions and redress. State inaction in response to attacks on transgender people in Honduras feeds the violence, and encourages discrimination against them by state and non-state actors.

The government of Honduras should ensure that all attacks against members of the transgender community are investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. The National Bureau for Criminal Investigation (Dirección Nacional de Investigación Criminal, DNIC) and the Office of the Attorney General should respond effectively, efficiently, and without prejudice to claims by transgender people. The Ombudsman’s office should provide follow-up on these cases and continue to be a forthright voice in support of transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual (TLGB) people in Honduras.

By supporting the OAS Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity in 2008,Honduras made a commitment to protecting transgender people, which should now be matched by specific actions. Honduras prides itself on its young democracy. As such it should reaffirm equality, non-discrimination, and the promotion and protection of human rights for all its people. Transgender people in Honduras repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that all they wanted was for people to see and treat them as human beings. It is the international obligation of the Honduran state to ensure that this happens, and to act upon its commitments made in the OAS General Assembly. 

 Key Recommendations

Honduras’ specific public commitments to ending violence on the grounds of gender identity and expression should translate into concrete actions that diminish violence against transgender people.

Honduras should end violence against transgender people by law enforcement officers and ensure investigations and prosecutions of state and non-state perpetrators of violence against transgender people.

Honduras should repeal provisions of the Law on Police and Social Affairs that penalize public conduct on arbitrary and vaguely defined grounds. Authorities should send a clear message to all law enforcement institutions that violence against transgender people, as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, will not be tolerated. Honduras should also conduct independent, impartial, and effective investigations into the general phenomenon of this violence and into specific allegations of police brutality, extortion, and ill-treatment against transgender people, leading to the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators.

Honduras should ensure full respect for and protection of the human rights of transgender people in police stations when they are arrested.

Honduras should guarantee protection against cruel and inhuman treatment of transgender people in police stations. The government should ensure that transgender people, if arrested, are registered under their chosen and their legal name at the police stations and assure that they are placed in facilities appropriate to their needs. The Office of the Attorney General, as well as non-governmental organizations that document violence in detention settings, should pay special attention to the vulnerabilities of transgender people.

Honduras should enact legislation that provides specific protections on the grounds of sexual orientation, and gender identity and gender expression.

Anti-discrimination legislation that specifically identifies the people it is intended to protect is often more effective than broadly worded legislation that needs to be interpreted to provide such protections. Honduras should include gender identity and expression and sexual orientation as grounds for non- discrimination, including by passing comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that specifically includes these as protected categories.

Methods

This report is based on research conducted during two two-week field visits to Honduras in December 2008 and in February 2009, as well as prior and subsequent research, including phone interviews. Overall, Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth interviews with 35 people who were victims of or eyewitnesses to discrimination and physical violence targeting transgender people, in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and La Ceiba, the three major cities in Honduras. Human Rights Watch interviewed other victims who did not want their stories to be included in the report for security reasons. Human Rights Watch also interviewed the Honduran minister of security, leading officers in the Office of the Attorney General, and five high ranking police officials in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, as well as United Nations officials, human rights NGO leaders and activists, and academics.

The names of some interviewees and certain identifying information have been withheld at their request to protect their privacy and safety.

Interviewees were identified largely with the assistance of the Honduras nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) Unidad Color Rosa (Collective TTT) in San Pedro Sula, which provides information and services to transgender people, and the Tegucigalpa-based Lesbian Collective Cattrachas. All documents cited in this report are either publicly available or on file with Human Rights Watch.

The report focuses on transgender people, in particular male-to-female (MTF) transgender individuals, because of their particular vulnerability to police abuse and violence. Human Right Watch interviewed one self-identified female-to-male (FTM) transgender person, who stated that he had not had problems with the police. Human Rights Watch attempted to locate other FTM transgender people, but without avail. This report does not address human rights abuses targeting lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities, as such violations merit separate and distinct treatment. A Human Rights Watch researcher fluent in Spanish conducted all of the interviews.