May 29, 2009

II. Background

Transgender people in Honduras are under fire everywhere. In a country where poverty and violence are endemic, the transgender community is at steady risk of abuse and harassment. A culture of deep-rooted patriarchy and religious conservatism creates an atmosphere of intolerance that many times breeds violence. Laws in place are not enough to protect transgender people: in some cases, the laws promote harassment.

Honduras has an estimated population of nearly 7.6 million people.[1] Approximately half of the population (3.5 million) lives in urban areas.[2] According to the national Poverty Reduction Information System (Sistema de Información de la Estrategia para la Reducción de la Pobreza, SIERP), approximately 65 percent of the population is poor and 45 percent live in extreme poverty.[3]

Honduras has extremely high rates of violence, including many recorded cases of violence committed by the police. The Violence Observatory of the National Autonomous University in Honduras puts the homicide rate at 57.9 per 100,000 inhabitants (by comparison, the murder rate in Guatemala is 45 per 100,000 and in New York City, seven per 100,000).[4] The Observatory also registered 6,609 cases of physical injury. In 378 of the recorded cases of physical injury, the aggressors were members of the police.

According to the Honduras-based Center for the Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and their Families (El Centro para la Prevención de la Tortura, CPTRT), between 2006 and 2008, police ill-treated 70 percent of the people they detained. The report also found that 99 percent of the detainees are not allowed to make a phone call, denying their right under the law.[5]

In 2001, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions visited Honduras. The Rapporteur received information about the murders of at least five transgender people in San Pedro Sula and the killings of over 200 members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities between 1991 and 2001. He noted the lack of investigations into the patterns of abuse. Honduran officials did not respond to his report[6] In 2005 the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women sent several urgent appeals to Honduras related to attacks on and killings of transgender people. Officials never responded.[7]

Domestic NGOs have also reported on the violence transgender people face in Honduras. In a 2004 shadow report on Honduras’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Center for Human Rights Research and Promotion (Centro de Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, CIPRODEH) documented regular raids against and detention of LGBT people and transgender people in sex work as a violation of article 2(1) of the ICCPR.[8] In 2006, in shadow reports to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), various national and international human rights organizations also pointed to violations of the rights of transgender people.[9]

International and national bodies, as well as this report, confirm that in Honduras transgender people are constant victims of violence at the hands of the police as well as private actors. Such abuses take place in an atmosphere of general violence in Honduras, where approximately 90 percent of violations by the police are not investigated.[10] The violence and absence of thorough investigations into attacks have a particular impact on transgender people, who already face marginalization and social stigma. “The community is terrified,” said Indyra Mendoza, a lesbian activist working closely with the community, after the latest death of a transgender activist.[11] “They [transgender people] do not trust the police or the judicial system.”[12]

Relevant Domestic laws

The substantial power and discretion given to the police in provisions of the 2002 Law on Police and Social Affairs facilitate police abuse and arbitrary detentions of transgender people.[13] All transgender individuals are at risk of police abuse and detention, whether they engage in sex work or not.[14] Sex work is not itself illegal in Honduras, but legislation has created grey areas that police can use to arrest people they believe are “morally” dubious, and they often include transgender people in this area. Those engaged in sex work have a compound fear of being prosecuted on the grounds of both their identity and  of their work. Meanwhile, article 321 of the Criminal Code, which affords general protections against discrimination, is rendered ineffective by stigma and by the neglect that surrounds violence against transgender people.

Law on Police and Social Affairs

According to article 5 of this law, enacted in 2001, police should “preven[t] and eliminate[e] disturbances to tranquility, public morality, and proper conduct.”[15] Article 142 (3) of the law includes specific provisions that give power to the police power 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.”[16]

Article 99 of the law includes sanctions against particular groups of people—including “vagabonds,” defined as “people who have no honest known means of living; thus vagabonds include: street people, scoundrels, street prostitutes, drug addicts, drunkards, and gamblers.”[17]

There is no further explanation within the law, nor are there judicial decisions narrowing the definition of what actions go “against modesty, proper conduct and public morals” or what behaviors suffice to make someone a “street person,” a “scoundrel,” a “street prostitute,” a “drug addict,” a “drunkard” or a “gambler” warranting arrest.[18]

The Center for the Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and their Families (CPTRT), a human rights group in Honduras, considers the law unconstitutional because its ambiguous terms and definitions remove restraints on arbitrary exercise of power, and invite not just arbitrary but discriminatory application by the police. CPTRT is also concerned that this law promotes an atmosphere of terror among targeted groups.[19] 

The vagueness of the language affords people no understanding of what acts are prohibited. As shown below, these open-ended clauses frequently lead to discriminatory and arbitrary treatment of transgender people, prohibited under international law.[20]

Comparable laws are found in a few other countries in the region, including in some states in México and some provinces in Argentina, and in Guatemala.[21] In other Latin American countries, however, judges have declared similar laws containing “public morality” and “proper conduct” infractions unconstitutional, on the grounds that such concepts are too broad and invite discriminatory treatment.[22]

Many organizations have pointed out the far-reaching effects of the Law on Police and Social Affairs on the LGBT community, and on transgender people in particular. The 2006 shadow report to the UN Human Rights Committee by several national and international organizations included examples of transgender people arbitrarily detained, harassed, and beaten under these laws.[23]The Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with and adjudicates violations under the ICCPR, has found that article 26 of the ICCPR bars acts and policies that are discriminatory in effect, as well as those that intend to discriminate.[24] With regard to El Salvador, for example, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern over “provisions (such as the local ‘contravention orders’) used to discriminate against people on account of their sexual orientation.”[25]

These provisions place a group of people in a situation of greater risk of violence and ill treatment. The UN Committee against Torture, charged with investigating complaints pertaining to the Convention Against Torture—ratified by Honduras in 1996—has manifested its concern over such laws[26] and called on states to eliminate similar criminal provisions that invite discriminatory application or enable arrests based on prejudice.[27] This body has also called for comprehensive and disaggregated data on complaints of ill treatment and torture by law enforcement personnel, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.[28]

Detentions under the Law on Police and Social Affairs are ongoing.[29] In this report, Human Rights Watch documents cases between 2006 and 2009 in which the police used this law to harass and detain transgender people, who arguably find themselves at the bottom of the heap of “vulnerable groups” facing aggression and violence by the police. Male-to-female transgender people in particular may suffer aggravated and compounded violence when they are believe to engage in sex work.[30]

The application of the Law on Police and Social Affairs in a discriminatory manner violates prohibitions on discrimination under articles 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[31] It also undermines Honduran legislation that governs police responsibilities and obligations.

Article 2 of the National Police Organic Law states that policing in Honduras is “grounded on principles of legality, continuity, professionalism ... equality, solidarity ... all under the outmost respect for human rights.”[32] The same law places obligations and prohibitions on police, and sets forth consequences for violating them.[33] The Law on Police and Social Affairs in practice counteracts these protections. Its vague language furnishes policemen wide leeway to act. The lack of clear prohibitions and sanctions for the police in this law means police officers have less fear of consequences.

Honduras Criminal Code

Article 321 of the Criminal Code sanctions with 3-5 years in prison and a fine between 30,0000 – 50,0000HNL [US$1,500-2,600] anyone who discriminates on the grounds of “sex, race, age, class, religion, political or party militancy, disability or any other that harms human dignity.”[34] This article does not specifically mention sexual orientation or gender identity and gender expression as protected grounds. Yet, the inclusion of “sex” and “human dignity” as protected categories may (in the light of UN precedents) be interpreted to include sexual orientation and gender identity.[35]

However, specific inclusion of gender identity and gender expression (as well as sexual orientation) in the law would make explicit the protection of transgender people. The UN Human Rights Committee has urged states to pass anti-discrimination legislation that expressly includes sexual orientation as a proected status.[36]

Police Overview

Honduras has three main police forces: the National Preventive Police; the National Bureau for Criminal Investigation (DNIC); and the Municipal Police. The National Preventive Police is present in cities throughout Honduras. Its role is to prevent crime and guarantee people’s individual and collective safety.[37] Local authorities organize the Municipal Police force, like the one fund in San Pedro Sula. The Municipal police coordinated at the central level and have similar responsibilities to the National Preventive Police.[38] The DNIC is charged with investigation tasks in criminal procedures and is coordinated by the Office of the Attorney General.[39]

Police receive basic human rights training in the Police Academy.[40] Police in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula also told Human Rights Watch that they regularly receive human rights trainings from various NGOs but suggested that, in fact, these trainings may have a religious bent that excludes mention of certain vulnerable groups, including the transgender community. Commissioner Marthel Valle said he opened the door to sessions with human rights and Christian groups. “The Christian groups, like Jimmy Hughes Ministries [an evangelical organization], come to talk to police officers on how to lead a Christian life. They bring the institution to God. I think it is important to bring the community, the church, and the police together. The Catholic Church also comes,” he said.[41] To our knowledge, the police curriculum does not include any specific training on gender identity and expression.

The Shape of Transgender Lives in Honduras

My dad was truly a macho. My every feminine action was reprimanded by beatings—so instead of receiving love, I received beatings. My mom gave me support: but only through her voice, because she lived in the United States. Even though he [my dad] mistreated me, I loved my father. I understood him. To him his last name meant work and respect and in my mind I felt guilty and I asked, ‘God, why did you make me this way’? I did not want to shame my father.
—Fernanda Vallejo, San Pedro Sula, December 18, 2008

We heard accounts similar to Fernanda’s when interviewing transgender people in Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba, and San Pedro Sula. Most intervieweestold us they began to feel attracted to men at an early stage of their lives. During puberty many considered themselves gay, but it was not until late adolescence that they dared to cross the boundaries of gender and begin to call themselves travestis. Within the LGBT community gay men who appear too effeminate are considered “flamboyant gays.”[42] All of the interviewees told us they transitioned from gay obvio [flamboyant gay] to travesti. There is a continuum as well as a conceptual distinction between gay men defined by their sexual orientation on the one hand, and male-to-female transgender people defined by their gender identity and expression on the other.

Machismo in Honduras means that men who do not act like men (or women who are considered somehow not quite women) face hatred and violence for their refusal to conform to normative gender identities. A deep-seated misogyny drives this hatred and enforces gender norms. Religious strictures and legal provisions both reinforce and justify this revulsion and rejection. Discrimination often begins in the family, and many transgender people run away from home to escape repressive parents. City life is rarely easier, though: a cycle of inequalities, economic as well as social, cements them in second-class status. Nonetheless, transgender people form communities and families of their own, speak out for their freedoms, and fight for their rights.

Discrimination and prejudice based on gender identity and gender expression in Honduras insinuate themselves into transgender people’s experiences from an early age. They affect many travestis’ ability to access basic goods and services, including education.

In 2005, at the age of 18, Deilin was studying in the Jose Trinidad Reyes Institute doing her third year in the basic school cycle. In December 2008 she told us:

I was expelled on the grounds of my sexual orientation [at the time, she says, she already identified as travesti].  I then transferred to the Morazanic School. During my first year of business administration I came out as trans. They first suspended me for six days, then for 12 days and then indefinitely. I could not graduate. It was through sex work that I managed to complete my basic studies.[43]

Transgender people also told Human Rights Watch about pervasive difficulties finding jobs. Many prospective employers refuse to hire them because they are dressed like women; others fire them if they find out they violate social norms for dress outside office hours. Many people told us they had managed to keep a job against the odds as a gay man, but lost it when they started to identify as transgender. Lisa, 35 years old, worked for the social security office in San Pedro as an administrative associate. “I always felt the need to be a woman, but I had to quit my job to achieve this. Working where I did, I could not keep my identity. The next day after I quit I dressed like a woman and went out to talonear [Spanish slang for going out at night to do sex work].[44]

Yet certain kinds of jobs, particularly low-paying service jobs, offer a marginal niche in which some transgender people can survive. The restrictive scope of these pigeonholes in turn constrains people’s sense of their identities. Pía, 18, considers herself a transsexual. Born in La Ceiba, she came out to her parents two years ago, on the day when she began dressing like a woman full-time. Pía graduated in accounting but is now studying to become a hair stylist. “I want to have a beauty salon,” she told us.[45] Asked why she wanted to be a stylist and not an accountant, she replied, “Accounting is not a career that lets me be myself. Beauty work does. If they see me like this in a bank they will make my life impossible, but not in a beauty salon,” she explained.[46] Sasha, dedicated to housework and in a relationship with a taxi driver, with whom she says would be “married” but for the lack of legal recognition, agrees with Pía. She also maintains that the state is the first to discriminate: “You can work in a beauty salon, as interior designers, as a tailor, a cook or a house wife, but ask for a state job and it will be impossible to get it. They generalize and see us as vulgar people or sex workers. There is no work for us.”[47]

For some transgender people, sex work offers more income, independence, and possibilities than other work; for others, it is the sole recourse when no other paid employment is possible. Nicole, 28 years old, travels to San Pedro Sula from her home in another city to do sex work. At home she dresses like a man, as a sign of respect towards her aunt. “I have been doing sex work for 10 years. I cannot get a job here for the way I am so I have to get money from my body and what I am.”[48]

Some transgender people we spoke to say they chose to do sex work because the narrow possibilities available in a heavily gendered economy limited their options. Others started to engage in sex work as a means to keep up their studies or to save for the future. Still others simply felt the streets were the only place where they could be themselves.[49] In December 2008, Cynthia Nicole, a leading transgender rights activist subsequently murdered, told us: 

We have the right to work, that right is violated ... We have to work on the streets. We have the right to education ... We are kicked out of schools. We are left with one possibility, using our beauty [literally “bellas virtudes”], to survive in this discriminatory country.[50]

[1]National Institute of Statistics, “Multiple Purpose Permanent Survey of Homes,” 2007, (accessed March 15, 2009).


[3] Honduras, Sistema de Información de la Estrategia de la Reducción de la Pobreza “SIERP,” (accessed March 31, 2009).

[4] Tegucigalpa reported 3,574 murders in 2007 and 4,473 killings in 2008 in Honduras (313 were women and 4,160 were men). Of the total, 735 took place in San Pedro Sula, 675 in Tegucigalpa, and 262 in La Ceiba. The remaining 2,801 took place outside the capital cities.

[5]CPTRT , “Intermediary Report on Arbitrary Detentions in Police Stations and the Unconstitutionality of the ‘Law on Police and Social Affairs’”(Informe Intermediario de las ONG Sobre Detenciones Arbitrarias en las Postas Policiales e Inconstitucionalidad de la Ley de Policía y Convivencia Social), October 2008, (accessed April 1, 2009).

[6]Interim report of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,” A/57/138, July 2. 2002 (accessed April 2, 2009).

[7] Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur Ms.Asma Jahangir,Mission to Honduras, (Fifty-ninth session, 2002), E/CN.4/2003/3/Add.2, para. 68, (accessed on April 23, 2009); Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Addendum Communications to and from Governments, E/CN.4/2005/72/Add.1, March 18, 2005, para. 180 (accessed on April 23, 2009).

[8] Centro de Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CIPRODEH), Shadow Report on Honduras Progress in the Compliance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, August 2004 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[9] Cattrachas, Comunidad Gay Sampedrana, Foro nacional de VIH/SIDA, Grupo KUKULCAN, Grupo Arcoiris, and IGLHRC, Shadow Report on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Honduras, September 2006 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[10] Friedrich Ebert-Institute Foundation, Security and Democracy, March 2006, p. 108 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[11]Human Rights telephone interview with Indyra Mendoza, January 10, 2009.


[13] Law on Police and Social Affairs (Ley de Policía y Convivencia Social), Decree No. 226-2001, (accessed April 3, 2009).

[14]The Criminal Code does criminalize smuggling and trafficking in article 149.

[15]  Law on Police and Social Affairs, article 5. Article 1 also requires that police “safeguard the fulfillment of the laws and regulations that aim to protect the life, honor, well-being and beliefs of the people; maintain public order…; restore domestic order…; [and] preserve public morality [and] health as well as historical and cultural heritage.”

[16] Ibid., arts. 16(3) and (9).

[17] Ibid., art. 99.

[18] See Report of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), Istanbul, June 3-14, 1996, A/CONF.165/14, paras. 53-241 (1996). In the United States such laws violate the eighth amendment. See Robisnson v California, 370 US 660 (1962).

[19]Jenny Almandares, “Análisis de la Ley de Policía y Convivencia Social,” (accessed April 2, 2009).

[20] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, ratified by Honduras on August 25, 1997, articles 2 and 26.

[21] A 2005 report by the Mexican National Commission to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) found that over 75 cities in Mexico had regulations on “public morals.” It also found that in some states police used these laws disproportionately against LGBT people. See Immigration Board of Canada, “Issue Paper Mexico: Situation of Witnesses to Crime and Corruption, Women, Victims of Violence and Victims of Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation,” (accessed April 28, 2009); See Colectivo Homosexual de Argentina, “Report on the Legal Situation of the LGBTI Community” (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[22]See Juzgado Correccional de Necochea, Buenos Aires Province, Case No. 4493, Gustavo Fabián, September 2006,,447,0,0,1,0, whereby the court declared article 72 of Law-Decree  8031/73 unconstitutional. Article 72 included drunkenness in a public place as a contravention sanctioned with a fine and arrest of up to 40 days. According to the court, “the State cannot impose upon the rest of society a moral model that individuals must follow.” Meanwhile, the Colombian Constitutional Court has held  that public morals laws should be analyzed under a strict proportionality study. “Therefore, only if the end truly corresponds to a principle of public morals and if it is useful, necessary and strictly proportional to its end, would the law be constitutional.” It added, “criminal sanctions that limit personal liberty cannot be founded exclusively on the defense of public morals principles.” Such laws that predicate themselves on an appeal to public morals but fail to recognize superior constitutional principles are unconstitutional. See Decision C-404/98, Colombian Constitutional Court, August 10, 1998, pgs. 32-34.

[23]“Shadow Report on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Honduras,” September 2006, (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[24]Human Rights Committee (HRC), "General Comment 18: Nondiscrimination," 37th Session, 1989, HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1, p. 26.

[25] HRC, “Concluding Observations: El Salvador,” CCPR/CO/78/SLV, July 22, 2003, para. 16.

[26]See CAT, Conclusions and recommendations of the Committee against Torture: Costa Rica , CAT/C/CRI/CO/2, July 7, 2008.

“The Committee considers that, in particular, the rules on public morals can grant the police and judges discretionary power which, combined with prejudices and discriminatory attitudes, can lead to abuse against this group (arts. 2, 11 and 16),”, para. 11 (accessed April 29, 2009).

[27] See CAT, Conclusions and recommendations of the Committee against Torture: Egypt, CAT/C/CR/29/4, December 23, 2002, para. 6: “The Committee recommends that the State party: … (k) Remove all ambiguity in legislation which might underpin the persecution of individuals because of their sexual orientation.”

[28] CAT, “Conclusions and Recommendations of the Committee against Torture: Estonia,” CAT/C/EST/CO/4,, para. 25 (accessed April 20, 2009).

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with Javier Medina (KuKulcán), Tegucigalpa, December 10, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview with Donny Reyes (Arcoiris), Tegucigalpa, February 17, 2009; Human Rights Watch interview with Ramón Valladares (CGS), San Pedro Sula, February, 19, 2009.

[30] Sex work is not illegal in Honduras and there are no regulations in place of places where people may or may not engage in sex work.

[31]Nicholas Toonen v Australia, 50th Sess., Communication No. 488/1992, CCPR/c/50/D/488/1992, April 14, 1994, para 8.7. In the 1994 case of Nicholas Toonen v Australia, the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with and adjudicates violations under the ICCPR, heard a complaint concerning a “sodomy law” punishing consensual, adult homosexual conduct in the Australian state of Tasmania. The Committee held that “sexual orientation” was a status protected under the ICCPR from discrimination, finding that “the reference to ‘sex’ in articles 2, paras. 1, and 26 is to be taken as including sexual orientation.”

[32] National Police Organic Law, Decree No. 67-2008, Gazette No. 31,749, October 31, 2008.

[33] Ibid., articles 24, 27, 32, and 33.

[34] Honduras Criminal Code, Decree Number 144-83, entered into force on September 26, 1983.

[35] See Nicholas Toonen v Australia, 50th Sess., Communication No. 488/1992, CCPR/c/50/D/488/1992, April 14, 1994, para 8.7.

[36]Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Slovakia, “CRC/C/SVK/CO/2, June 8, 2007, para. 28; “Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Namibia,” CCPR/CO/81/NAM, July 30, 2004, para. 22; “Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Trinidad and Tobago, “CCPR/CO/70/TTO, November 3, 2000, para. 11; "Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Poland," Human Rights Committee, 66th Session, CCPR/C/79/Add.110, para. 23.

[37] National Police Organic Law, Decree No. 67-2008, Gazette No. 31,749, October 31, 2008.

[38]Ibid., article 102.

[39]The DNIC was formerly known as the General Bureau for Criminal Investigation (DGIC). Its name changed in November 2008.

[40]Human Rights Watch interview with Ambrosio Ordoñez, Chief of Metropolitan Police in Tegucigalpa, Tegucigalpa, February 23, 2009; General Police Commissioner Mirna Suazo, oral presentation at the First National Congress of Trans People on Human Rights and Universal Access, December 5, 2008. The curriculum includes a human rights module based on a guidebook by the nongovernmental organization CIPRODEH. CIPRODEH recently developed an additional publication focusing on discrimination, the Non Discrimination in Police Actions: Protection for the Rights of Homosexuals, but it is yet to be included in the curriculum.[40] The publication is flawed. It focuses on gay men, leaving aside other identities.

[41]Human Rights Watch interview, Wilmer Marthel Valle, Police Commissioner, Tegucigalpa, February 23, 2009.

[42] The description given of a flamboyant gay, in some cultures would be considered a transgender person, thus merging somehow sexual orientation and gender identity.

[43]Human Rights Watch interview, Deilin, San Pedro Sula, December 4, 2008. Deilin’s use of “sexual orientation” shows once again the continuum between the terms sexual orientation and gender identity.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview, Laura, San Pedro Sula, December 8, 2008.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview, Pía Johnson, La Ceiba, December 10, 2008.


[47]Human Rights Watch interview, Sasha, La Ceiba, December 10, 2008.

[48]Human Rights Watch interview, Nicole, San Pedro Sula, December 8, 2008.

[49]In Tegucigalpa transgender people engage in sex work near CEUTEC University, Hotel Maya, in Barrio Guacerique, and around the Obelisco. The Hotel Maya is in central Tegucigalpa and is considered to be close to the tourist zone. Barrio Guacerique and the Obelisco are in Comayaguela, a small town across the river to the south of Tegucigalpa. In San Pedro Sula they work along Boulevard Morazán, near the center of town, but most are relegated to “El Tamarindo,” a district south of the railway tracks, and other outlying areas, like the store Diunsa.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview, Cynthia Nicole, Tegucigalpa, December 5, 2008.