May 29, 2009

III. Police Abuse and Violence

Human Rights Watch documented police actions that violated fundamental human rights protections against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment and due process. Transgender people in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa reported serious violence – including sexual and physical assault – as well as extortion of money by members of the Municipal and the National Preventive Police. Transgender people also reported that law enforcement officials failed to undertake diligent and effective investigations and prosecute the perpetrators of these violations. 

International law forbids the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by officials or persons acting in an official capacity.[51] These prohibitions apply "not only to acts that cause physical pain but also to acts that cause mental suffering to the victim,"[52] including intimidation and other forms of threats.[53] International law also guarantees the right to liberty and security of the person and protection from arbitrary detention.[54]

Rape, Assault and Extortion

Human Rights Watch interviews indicate that, despite express prohibitions in international and Honduran law, policemen use their power to demand sex and to extort money from transgender people, often on pain of violence.[55]

When Human Rights Watch interviewed Patricia in February 2009, she showed us 5 of 17 scars she said she had received from a recent stabbing by a police officer.

On December 18 a policeman forced me into his car to have sex with me. I got into his car and after having oral sex, he told me he wanted me to penetrate him. I explained to him that I couldn’t be active [because she was a transsexual] and lifted my skirt. He looked at me and said, ‘You would have been better born a woman!’ I apologized, but he got really angry. He tried to pull out a gun but I threw myself against him and fought him with one of his crutches [Patricia later told us the man was using crutches because he was injured]. My friend Estefania heard what was happening and screamed for help. A patrol car (MI 106) stopped. The police officers took the guy out of the car and told him to leave. But that was it.
The next day, the man with the crutches drove again by CEUTEC [a university], the place where we do sex work. He came close to me and rolled down the window. I was scared so I said ‘hi.’ He asked me to come closer. I did and asked him what he wanted. He stabbed me in the neck.
I couldn’t run—I felt I was fainting. I saw two other people come out of the car. They pushed me in the back seat and took off. I saw that we were on the road towards Danli [a town south of Tegucigalpa] so I started to fight back when I felt my strength coming back. He [the main assailant] stopped, turned around and started to stab me more. I fainted. They threw me out of the car and left me for dead.
A taxi that was coming the other way picked me up and took me to the Clipper [a medical center] in El Hato [a neighborhood] and from there an ambulance took me to Escuela Hospital. Doctors in the hospital said if I had arrived 5 minutes later, I would have died. They had to put a tube through my lungs because they were full of blood from the first stabbing.[56]

The man Patricia identified as her attacker, Amado Rodríguez Borjas, is a member of the police force. “A person like him should not be in a position like that; he should not be a policeman,” she concluded.[57]

Diana, 23, told a similar story. “About eight months ago [May 2008] three police officers stopped me on the street and forced me into a patrol car. They drove me to a faraway place that I did not recognize. The officers tore my clothes off; all three beat me and raped me. Then they left me in the outskirts of the city.”[58]

Most commonly, transgender women told stories of police forcing them to engage in oral sex. Natalia, 19, recalls a night when a police officer forced her into a police car and took her near the stadium. “When we got to the stadium the policeman held a gun against my head and made me suck him. It was horrible, but thankfully he only beat me and let me go after stealing my money.”[59]

In 2008, Paola, 18, told Human Rights Watch that police demanded sex from her several times a month. She told us of a police assault that very week:

It was last Tuesday. I was working in the Maya [a sex work area near Hotel Maya]. Around 10:00 p.m. four police officers told me to get in the patrol car. They started to beat me and asked me to have sex with them. They wanted me to give them all an oral. I refused. They drove me to the road that exits the city in the south and they beat me senseless and threw me there and left. They were wearing police uniforms. I have seen them before but I don’t know their names because they concealed their badges.[60]

All the interviewees told Human Rights Watch spoke to had at least one story of police extorting money—from themselves, their clients, or both. Lisa, 35, who told Human Rights Watch police asked her for sex on average every couple of weeks, also recounted an example of police extorting money from her client:[61]

Almost every day [police demand money]. The last time was last Thursday. I got in the car with a client who gave me 500HNL [US$26] up front. Around the block, police stopped me and made me get out of the car. They blackmailed the client and took his money.[62]

Melbin told Human Rights Watch about the last time municipal police extorted money from her:

Three weeks ago [early December 2008] three police officers from the municipal police stopped me in the street while I was negotiating with a client. The police threatened to arrest me if I did not give them something. What they wanted was money. So I gave them 200 HNL [US$11] and they left me alone.[63]

Montserrat confirmed this and added,

It’s a routine. It’s always the same thing. We get in a car and they [the police] follow the car. A few streets later they stop the car. Police steal our money and then threaten the client. They tell him they will tell the TV stations that they found him with a trans. Sometimes they arrest us, sometimes they extort money from us. They [the police] leave us without money and without a client.[64]

Yet police authorities routinely deny any wrongdoing. Commissioner Castillo of the National Preventive Police in San Pedro Sula told Human Rights Watch that his officers could not extort money from or attack transgender people because they do not have jurisdiction in the places where transgender people do sex work.[65] Abel Guerrero, head of the Municipal Police in San Pedro Sula, told Human Rights Watch, “I will give you my resignation right now if you tell me of any municipal policeman that has extorted money from them [transgender people].”


Joshua is a 19-year-old who identifies as travesti.[66] Joshua is not allowed to be herself at home—to wear high heels and a skirt—so she changes elsewhere before going out at night. Joshua does not feel safe at home, but she is not safe on the streets either. She recalls a night that left her immobilized for weeks:

Four months ago [in September 2008], police attacked us near CEUTEC University [in Tegucigalpa]. It was around 2 a.m. and we were working. Suddenly five police cars and around 20 policemen appeared from nowhere. We were eight transgender people doing sex work.
They screamed at us and said they were taking us away. We showed them our identity cards and yet despite this they took us. Before taking us, a couple of them did say we could “solve things a different way.” We told them we did not have any money because we hadn’t worked yet and that they could take us if they wanted to. Two policemen grabbed me and put me in a car and punched me in the face.
They took us to the [Manchen] 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.
On the way to the cell one of them [police officers] broke a broomstick against my back. That guy was not even working. He was in the police station resting and came down when we arrived. He hit me and roughed up several of my friends. There were two lockups. We were put in the women’s one. We were kept all together until they took me to the hospital two hours later.
At Escuela Hospital they put my back in a cast. I was kept there two days for checkups. I did not see the police again.

Police never told these eight detainees the reason for their arrest, nor were they allowed to make a phone call. The transgender people explained to the officers that they were doing nothing illegal: it made no difference.

On December 1, 2008, Mónica, 18, stood with a group of friends behind Diunsa [a store that is also a sex work area], in the city of San Pedro Sula. At around 8:00 p.m. a police patrol car stopped, carrying five members of the Municipal Police. “They started beating us with their batons. I ran away into the Motel El Sauce, but the police continued to beat my friends. They told us to leave the area because this was not an area for taloneo.”[67]

Police physically assaulted an outreach worker with the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS (ASONAPSIDA), in December 2008.

I was standing in Vatican Street, in front of CEUTEC [University] in Colonia Palmira [a neighborhood]. Minutes later a police patrol car (MI79) assigned to the Manchén police station arrived. They asked for money. I told them I did not have any money. So they grabbed me by the hair and hit my head against the glass door of the corner building. They hit me until they broke the glass with my face. They then accused me of trying to break into the building to steal, and they took me away.
When I arrived at the Manchén Police Station I begged the police officer in charge to let me make a phone call. He just ignored me. A couple of hours later they finally took me to the Clipper [an emergency medical facility] in the October 21st neighborhood. In the police car they threatened me and told me I would die if I said anything.
At the Clipper, while the police were outside, a nurse let me use her cell phone. I managed to call a friend who reached Indyra Mendoza, the coordinator of the Red Lésbica Cattrachas [an organization based in Tegucigalpa that advocates for the rights of the LGBT community in Honduras]. When we returned to the police station one of the police officers said I was there for “public scandal,” under the Law on Police and Social Affairs. I was detained until 11:30 a.m.[68]

Arbitrary Arrests

Depriving individuals of their liberty if they have not been convicted of a crime, including the pre-trial detention of suspects, should only be the exception, never the norm, and should take place under regulated and defined circumstances.[69] However, the open-ended clauses in the Law on Police and Social Affairs actively encourage the arbitrary arrest and detention of transgender people appearing in public.

The interpretation of what the law means by “moral” is left to the police. Policemen in Tegucigalpa had different views on what “morality” means. Orlando Ruíz, head of the Manchén Police Station, said, “Morality is what the Honduras society mandates. For instance, people cannot wear clothes that are too sexy when going into an establishment.”[70] Colonel Galo told Human Rights Watch, “Immorality is when you can see everything”—when clothes are too revealing.  He added, it is important what kind of body the clothes reveal: “You see how Real Street is full of women prostitutes[71] and the police do not arrest them and charge them—because they are not dressing immorally.”[72]

A high-ranking officer displayed prejudices that presumably filter down to patrolmen on the street, telling us that “[w]hat happens with those homosexuals [referring to transgender people] is that they are robbers and the men they go out with do not want to charge them because they are ashamed. Most of those homosexuals are robbers, vulgar and ill-mannered. They do not respect the police. I cannot stand those people in the area.”[73]

Other police officials do not deny that homophobia is rife among the police force. At the First National Transgender Congress organized by UNAIDS and several nongovernmental organizations in December 2008, General Police Commissioner Mirna Suazo said, “in our country, which is a patriarchal society, police tend to reproduce the roles and stereotypes that the society and culture has imposed.”[74] Other police officers also talked about machismo and homophobia as a problem in the police force.[75] The Chief of the Metropolitan Police in Tegucigalpa said, “It’s hard to discuss this [referring to LGBT issues] with officers in lower ranks, because if one talks about it they assume it’s because, perhaps, one is like them [that is, one is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender].”[76]

Acknowledging police violence and discrimination against members of the LGBT community, including transgender people, is a precondition to ending it. Yet these unusual admissions have not been followed up with any change to broad provisions of the Law on Police and Social Affairs that invite abuse, or by any prosecutions of officers who have allegedly engaged in abusive behavior.

Arrests Based on Prejudice

Dita is a 49-year-old travesti. She told us she has known she was transgender since she turned 18. Today Dita makes a living cleaning, ironing, and teaching handicrafts. “I find ways to survive,” she says. “For Valentines Day I will come up with a card with a thought and I will sell these things to earn some money.” Dita studied to be an accountant and has never been a sex worker, yet police routinely stop her in Tegucigalpa, assuming she is one because of her gender identity and expression. 

Police stop me. They just say, ‘you are from the Maya’ [a sex work area near Hotel Maya in Tegucigalpa] and they hit me and shove me into the police car. They take me to the police station. They disregard my explanations that I am not a sex worker and they just tell me, ‘In with you for 24 hours!’ This happened last three weeks ago [February 15, 2008]. I was coming from having a beer and I stopped a taxi. I got in and just as we were going around the park a police officer stopped us. The policeman screamed and called for backup saying that the taxi driver was my client and I was trying to steal from him! He took me to the Manchén police station and left me there for 24 hours.[77]

Police tag human rights defenders with the stigma of sex work as well.

On May 26, 2007, police stopped Claudia Spellmant, leader of the Collective TTT and member of the RedLac Trans (a regional network that works for the protection of transgender people’s rights), as she walked near the municipal stadium on her way to a concert. The officers accused her of doing sex work, ignored her explanations, and pushed her into a police patrol car. They took her and another group of transgender women arrested separately in the same area to the municipal police station.[78] The officers told the detainees they had disobeyed instructions to avoid public places reserved for “normal and decent people.”[79] They were not charged. While there are no laws or regulations that specify the “permitted” places to do sex work, police use the broad language of the Law on Police and Social Affairs to unlawfully target and detain transgender people.

When researchers asked police authorities about these arrests, Abel Gamero, director of the Municipal Police in San Pedro Sula said, “The city has its own governance. There are places where they can [do sex work] and others where they can’t.”[80] When asked if this was written in laws or regulations, he said, “No, these are spoken directives in place because the community asks for them.”[81] Gamero remained silent when Human Rights Watch asked how policemen knew a transgender person was engaging in sex work. 

Alejandra, who works in San Pedro Sula with Comunidad Gay Sampedrana, had an experience similar to that of Spellmant.

About a year ago [February 2008] I was walking on First Street. I was going to the movies by myself—looking very feminine, with my handbag, makeup, everything. Four policemen in blue uniforms stopped me. They told me I was a commercial sex worker. I told them I was not that, I was only going to the movies. Regardless, they put me in the police car and took me away. I told them to let me go, that I had to go to work later in the day. I showed them my identity card and they still said that they were taking me to the station unless I paid them to let me go. I was scared so I gave them 500HNL [US$26].[82]

Police prejudice against transgender people may hamper and interfere in some cases with HIV prevention work. Chichi, a 32-year-old transgender person, was born in Tegucigalpa and lives there now; she used to work with Colectivo Violeta on HIV/AIDS prevention for sex workers. In early 2007 police detained her while she was doing outreach work.

That night when we went out to distribute condoms and information to transgender people doing sex work, the police stopped us and registered us [asking for their identity cards and body-searching them]. Just because they saw my blumer [thong], they assumed I was doing sex work and took me to the police station. I had to stay there until the next day.[83]

[51]American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) (“Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica”), adopted November 22, 1969, O.A.S. Treaty Series No. 36, 1144 U.N.T.S. 123, entered into force July 18, 1978, reprinted in Basic Documents Pertaining to Human Rights in the Inter-American System, OEA/Ser.L.V/II.82 doc.6 rev.1 at 25 (1992), ratified by Honduras in May, 1977, article 5. Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, O.A.S. Treaty Series No. 67, entered into force February 28, 1987, signed by Honduras in March 1986, arts. 1, 6. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention Against Torture), adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, ratified by Honduras in  December 1996, arts. 2(1),11, and 16.

[52]Human Rights Committee, General Comment 20, Article 7 (Forty-fourth session, 1992), Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, HRI\GEN\1\Rev.1 at 30 (1994).The Human Rights Committee is the United Nations body charged with monitoring implementation of the ICCPR. See also Convention against Torture, article 1 (defining torture to include intentional acts that cause severe physical pain or mental suffering).

[53]Report of the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, U.N. General Assembly, A/56/156, July 3, 2001, Section IIA (finding that fear of physical torture may constitute mental torture, and that serious and credible threats to the physical integrity of the victim or a third person can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or even to torture, especially when the victim is in the hands of law enforcement officials).

[54]Convention against Torture, article 15.See also Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, principle 21

[55] Article 33 (15) of the National Police Organic Law prohibits “taking advantage of a hierarchy  position to induce, abuse or engage in relations of sexual character.”,

[56]Human Rights Watch interview, Patricia, Tegucigalpa, February 18, 2009.


[58] Human Rights Watch interview, Diana, San Pedro Sula, December 11, 2008.

[59]Human Rights Watch interview, Natalia, San Pedro Sula, December 11, 2008.

[60]Human Rights Watch interview, Paola, Tegucigalpa, December 5, 2008.

[61]Human Rights Watch interview, Lisa, San Pedro Sula, December 18, 2008. “A few days before that, [November 2008] members of the national preventive police found me with a client in a vacant lot. They started to beat me up and wanted to take me in the patrol car. They told me that I should have oral sex with them, to be let go. There were six of them, so I had to say yes and gave them all oral sex.”


[63]Human Rights Watch interview, Melbin, San Pedro Sula, December 18, 2008.

[64]Human Rights Watch interview, Montserrat, San Pedro Sula, December 18, 2008.

[65]Human Rights Watch interview, Commissioner Castillo, First Police Station, San Pedro Sula, February 19, 2009.

[66]Human Rights Watch interview, Joshua, Tegucigalpa, December 5, 2008.

[67]Human Rights Watch interview, Mónica, San Pedro Sula, December 8, 2008.

[68]Human Rights Watch interview, name witheld, Tegucigalpa, February 18, 2009. Office of the Attorney General, Human Rights Unit, Case No. 485-08 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[69] ICCPR, article 5(3).

[70] Human Rights Watch interview, Orlando Ruiz, Tegucigalpa, February 23, 2009.

[71]The colonel used the archaic word meretriz in Spanish, derived from meretrix, a Latin word for prostitute.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview, Obin Alexis Galo Maldonado, Police Commissioner, Tegucigalpa, February 23, 2009.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview, Vásquez Palma, Sub Commissioner Manchén Police Station, Tegucigalpa, February, 23, 2009.

[74] General Police Commissioner Mirna Suazo, oral presentation at the First National Congress of Trans People on Human Rights and Universal Access, December 5, 2008.

[75]Human Rights Watch interview, Alexis Galo Maldonado, Police Commissioner; Wilmer Marthel, Police Sub commissioner, Tegucigalpa, February, 23, 2009.

[76]Human Rights Watch interview, Ambrosio Ordoñez, Chief of Metropolitan Police in Tegucigalpa, Tegucigalpa, February 23, 2009.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview, Dita, Tegucigalpa, February 21, 2009.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview, Claudia Spellmant, San Pedro Sula, February 18, 2009.

[79] Ibid., see IGLHRC, “Honduras: New Arbitrary Detentions. This Time Victims are Travesti People,”July 12, 2007, Claudia initiated a claim before the Office of the Attorney General, Case No. 0501-2007-05367, October 9, 2007, in file with Human Rights Watch.

[80]Human Rights Watch interview, Abel Gamero, San Pedro Sula, February 18, 2009.

[81] Ibid.

[82]Human Rights Watch interview, Alejandra, San Pedro Sula, February, 19, 2009.

[83]Human Rights Watch interview, Chichi, Tegucigalpa, December, 5, 2008.