September 11, 2018
Chapter 1: Witnesses and Informants Provide Crucial Information
Brave witnesses are crucial to convicting murderers in Honduras. Some of these witnesses later become community informants, providing Peace and Justice staff with important information and insight about crime in their neighborhood, and helping to solve even more cases.
Rosa* is a bright, ebullient Honduran woman whose smooth face makes it difficult to believe she has great-grandchildren. She’s lived nearly her whole life in Barrio Viejo, a sprawling community of 400,000 people that is one of the most violent regions of Honduras.
“Where I live, it rains bullets, and the police don’t do anything about it,” she says.
Despite violence in the region, Rosa carved out a happy space for her family. Against the odds, she raised three sons and two daughters to resist the influence of the five different gangs whose territories crisscrossed through their neighborhood, and ensured they all finished at least primary education.
Rosa’s life changed when a young man running from two gang members ran inside her family home to hide. One of the gang members followed him in, but in confusion, shot Rosa’s husband. “Idiot, you got the wrong guy!” the second gang member called out, but it was too late. Her husband had already been shot eight times.
Rosa was paralyzed. Though she’d managed to hide herself in the next room, she clearly identified the young men responsible. “I didn’t know whether to cry or to shout or what to do,” she said, “I was so afraid.”
Eventually, police arrived, but only to take Rosa’s husband to the hospital. She rode along with him and they had barely arrived at the hospital when she felt his grip on her hand loosen.
Rosa begged the police officers for help, but they said there was not much they could do besides introducing her to someone. Soon she was sitting across a table from a gentle-eyed man who introduced himself as Mateo*, an investigator for a Christian nonprofit called the Association for a More Just Society. He told her he wanted to help her, without asking for anything in exchange.
“I need to move,” she told him. She was afraid that her husband’s killers had seen her or her granddaughter, who were both in the house at the time of the murder. “He said they’d help me, and I believed it and didn’t believe it at the same time. Mostly, I was just afraid.”
But sure enough, Mateo showed up the next day to help her box up her possessions. She felt much calmer in her new house, which was in the same neighborhood, but away from the crossfire of the warring gangs.
Encouraged by Mateo’s kindness, Rosa began attending therapy sessions to help her manage her grief and shock. At first, she couldn’t hear a gunshot without becoming paralyzed and locking down her house. “There was sort of a mental block,” she says, “I couldn’t go out into the street.”
Rosa’s visits with the psychologist helped her feel more in control of her own life. “I have recovered excellently in these two years,” she now says confidently.
As she continued therapy, Rosa knew that Mateo was investigating her husband’s murder, and that he had even helped to arrest one of the young men responsible. After a few months, she went to Mateo and said she wanted to testify to ensure that the man would be convicted.
“They took me to the courts every time,” she said, remembering the elaborate alibis she, Mateo, and the AJS lawyer cooked up together so that no one else in her community would become suspicious that she might be collaborating on a case.
“When I testified, I was so nervous at first, but I steeled myself and concentrated on what I had to do,” Rosa remembers. When the defense lawyer questioned why she was so interested in giving her testimony, trying to get her to reveal something about her identity, she remained firm, saying simply: “We’re tired of so much death.”The AJS staff earned permission for Rosa to testify as a protected witness, which meant she could give her testimony draped in long black robes, with a voice distorter to hide her identity.
Rosa is confident that she never would have given this testimony if she didn’t have the support of AJS’s criminal investigator. “I would be too afraid to give any of this information to the police,” she says, “If someone sees me talking to the police, they’ll kill me!”
In May 2018, two years after Rosa’s husband was murdered, the gunman was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Rosa’s eyewitness testimony was a crucial part of achieving this conviction.
Rosa is still in touch with Mateo, her psychologist, and many of the staff members from AJS. What’s more, she has joined their network of community informants.
“When I see something that’s not right, I say ’here’s what’s going on,’ so that they can come in. If I see someone committing a crime, or know about a murder. I tell them exactly where it happened,” she says.
With eyes and ears like Rosa, AJS investigators are able to gather information about criminal networks and sense trends of violence even before they occur. This helps contribute to lower incidences of homicide, which, for Rosa, is reason enough to continue in her support.