October 29, 2014
“Josue… Josue! Are you there?” yelled Estelvina, Josue’s neighbor.
There was no response.
Estelvina’s heart sank. She has just gotten word that a boy who matched Josue’s description had been killed at the entrance of their neighborhood.
Soon her worst fears were confirmed. Josue had been killed, shot by a man riding on the back of a motorcycle. The apparent motive? To steal Josue’s motorcycle, which would sell on the black market for about $350.
The exchange of Josue’s life for $350 was incomprehensible for Josue’s friends and family. Eighteen-year-old Josue had been finishing up high school in the evenings so that he could help his family with their small corner store. He ran errands for his parents on his motorcycle every day and picked up his little sister from school faithfully at noon.
Josue’s parents saw little hope for justice in Josue’s case; in 2012 the Honduran Attorney General admitted that only 20% of homicide cases were even investigated. But Josue’s mother, Carla, knew the importance of justice.
“I want justice because just as my son was killed by these culprits, they could also leave other parents without children and children without parents,” she said.
A Glimmer of Hope
When Association for a More Just Society (AJS) investigators and lawyers heard about the case, they were more optimistic.
They help Honduran government detectives and prosecutors fills in gaps, both in expertise and resources, in order to achieve justice for mourning families.
Forty-eight hours after the June 2013 murder, they already had security camera footage from a nearby business identifying witnesses in the case, and soon the AJS investigator got in touch with the witnesses to see if they’d be willing to testify.
Like in many cases in Honduras, the witnesses were afraid of reprisals for speaking up. But, when the AJS investigator told them about the protected witness program that AJS had pioneered in Honduras, they decided to take the brave step of testifying.
A Break in the Case
The next step was to get higher quality video images from city-owned cameras in the area. With the help of a video editor, the AJS investigator was able to identify the car and motorcycle that were following Josue shortly before the murder. They decided to focus on finding the car; it was easy to identify because it had a big “H” on the hood.
But, in a city where more than 450,000 cars are on the road on any given day, finding the car would be like finding a needle in a haystack. The team needed another clue — and that clue came in an unlikely form.
One day, the AJS investigator was working on another case, when he spotted two young men at a bus stop who he knew sold stolen goods.
He pulled over, leaned out the window of his pick-up, and struck up a conversation. Eventually, the investigator asked the young men,
“Hey, I’m looking for a cheap motorcycle. Any idea where I could get one?”
“You get us $350, we’ll get you a motorcycle,” the young men replied.
“Have you two heard anything about a Yamaha that they killed a guy for?”
“Oh yeah, we know the guys who did that.”
“Really? Do you know whose white car they used to do it?”
“Yeah, that car belongs to Joel. He has a cell phone shop.”
“You want to show me where the cell phone shop is? Then we can get some dinner.”
The two young men got in the car and showed the investigator exactly where the business was.
The Investigation Heats Up
With a strong lead, the investigator now had to get a visual on the suspect to see if he matched the shooter in the video.
He and his police detective colleague decided to dress up as political campaigners and knocked on the door at Joel’s house in order to get his full name and a close-up photo. He matched the images in the video, and now the investigators had enough evidence to get an arrest warrant for Joel.
After hours of surveillance, in October 2013, the Honduran police, accompanied by the AJS investigator, arrested Joel for Josue’s murder and the robbery of his motorcycle.
In the initial hearing later that month, the AJS lawyer helped the public prosecutor use video evidence to prove probable cause.
AJS coordinator Byron Zuniga said, “Using video in the trial was groundbreaking. We don’t know of another case in Honduras where the video was used as evidence to reach a judicial decision.”
Now Joel is awaiting his final trial.
A Recipe for Success
With Josue’s killer in prison, his family rests more easily. And even though justice won’t bring their son back, they know this is one step in preventing other families from the pain of losing a child to violence.
Why is AJS able to follow through on such cases with success while the Honduran justice system continues to be ineffective, only investigating 20 percent of murders that occur? Of course, there are differences in financial resources — AJS staff have more resources to carry out their work. But the more fundamental reasons for success have to do with creative investigation techniques and attitude changes — which AJS investigators and lawyers are teaching to government detectives and prosecutors.
It’s easy to identify the following characteristics that have come to define AJS staff.
First, they are innovative. They don’t just rely on evidence from the crime scene. They use things like a protected witness program and security cameras to get the best evidence possible.
Second, they build relationships to get good testimony. They have a network of more than 70 collaborators that will call them at the first news of a crime.
Third, they are persistent. They’re willing to dig through all the evidence they can, building a case piece by piece to see justice done.
And finally, and maybe most importantly, as one of the AJS lawyers said, “We look at the victims and their families as people.” The staff don’t solely look at them as another case to solve but spend time with them and employ psychologists who make sure the family is healing from the trauma. When the investigators and lawyers see the victims as people, they are passionate about seeking justice.
This recipe for success has helped the AJS staff solve more than 70 cases and prevent countless more. They are bringing hope to Honduran people like Josue’s family that justice can be done!