Twenty-eight-year-old Honduran investigator Sherill Yubissa Hernández Mancía died two different ways, depending on whom you ask.
Found in a pool of blood by colleagues in her Santa Rosa de Copán apartment on June 11, 2018, Hernández Mancía was head of a special police unit that investigated corruption and other complex crimes in western Honduras.
According to Ricardo Castro, the chief of the elite police force where she worked, the young agent committed suicide.
“I like to speak with scientific evidence,” Castro told Proceso Digital in January this year. “Everything says this was a suicide. The case was closed, as nobody objected.”
But the country’s former director of forensic medicine, Semma Julissa Villanueva, says that all the evidence points to murder. Since signing her autopsy report about two years ago, she has not budged from her initial finding: that Hernández Mancía was killed and then the crime scene staged -- poorly at that -- to look like a suicide. For speaking out, Julissa Villanueva was removed from her post and has received death threats.
Attempts to discredit her have come from the highest levels, including Honduras’ attorney general.
“I had never seen anything like this in an investigation,” Julissa Villanueva told InSight Crime. “They were trying to generate doubt, and I wasn’t allowing it.”
The Hernández Máncia case fits into a pattern in Honduras in which high-profile death inquiries are slow-walked, riddled with errors and then dismissed without much explanation. Questions about whether the young agent was killed because she was digging into connections among the MS13 street gang, drug traffickers, local officials and possibly agents within her own unit have been met with a wall of silence.
People close to the case say it’s more than likely that her work led to her murder.
“This was not a suicide. They killed her because she was investigating drug trafficking,” an official from Honduras’ National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Honduras - CONADEH), who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the case, told InSight Crime.
A Body Mishandled, A Crime Scene Contaminated
In 2015, at the age of 25, Hernández Mancía began her career with the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC), Honduras’ equivalent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Seen as a rising star, the fresh-faced agent was quickly transferred to San Pedro Sula, where she was trusted with taking part in Operation Avalanche, a high-profile investigation into the money laundering operations of the MS13 street gang.
Sometime in early 2018, while wrapping up the third Avalanche investigation, she was promoted to regional director of a special ATIC unit that investigates corruption. She took charge of a 10-person team in Copán, a department along the Guatemalan border rife with drug trafficking.
On the morning of June 11, when she didn’t arrive at work, her colleagues went to her Santa Rosa de Copán apartment. They found her dead.
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ATIC agents immediately took charge of the investigation and crime scene, barring other agencies from entering the apartment, said Julissa Villanueva.
Forensic investigators were quick to cry foul. A June 12 article by Tiempo Digital quoted a morgue official who told reporters that both evidence and Hernández Mancía’s body were mishandled. The official also questioned why the ATIC was directing the death investigation and not the Directorate of Police Investigation (Dirección Policía de Investigación - DPI), which is responsible for physical examinations, fingerprinting and other evidence collection at crime scenes in Honduras.
“The ATIC never processes a crime scene,” Julissa Villanueva said.
Days later, an anonymous ATIC official leaked information to El Heraldo that the death “was a suicide” by means of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The ATIC withheld key pieces of forensic evidence for more than a week, including the gun and bullet casings found in Hernández Mancía’s apartment.
Meanwhile, ATIC officials summoned Santa Rosa de Copán’s forensic investigator, Delio Serrano, to a meeting after he refused to sign a report that said he had participated in the processing of Hernández Mancía’s body, according to La Prensa. He would only acknowledge that he had been present and refused to go to the meeting without a lawyer.
The crime scene report, however, states that no forensic investigator was present. The morgue director even reprimanded Serrano in a letter two days later, saying he had been negligent in not taking charge of Hernández Mancía’s body.
“It appears that the doctor was never there,” Julissa Villanueva said, “because he didn’t take any photos nor did he sign the crime scene report.”
On July 3, less than a month after Hernández Mancía’s death, Julissa Villanueva issued her autopsy. Cause of death: “Homicide,” spelled out in bold letters.
“There is no doubt, this was a violent death,” she told reporters a week later. “It was not a suicide and it merits a credible investigation.”
Since issuing her report, Julissa Villanueva has stood firm in her insistence that Hernández Mancía was murdered, even as other investigators assigned to the death inquiry moved slowly and sent mixed messages. Without hesitation, she rattles off the many inconsistencies in the crime scene photos.
Hernández Mancía’s colleagues said they found her body on the floor, in a pool of blood, according to initial reports. But in the photos, the agent lies in bed on her back, a 9-millimeter handgun pressed to her temple. There is no blood on the pillow or residue on the walls that would be consistent with a self-inflicted shot to that side of the head, Julissa Villanueva said.
Instead, the blood flows down her face and neck.
“It should be all around,” she said. “You can see clearly that this body was moved.”
What’s more, Hernández Mancía’s right hand holds the gun, her arm at an angle. But tests found no gunshot residue on either her hand or arm.
Photos show the agent’s swollen tongue out of her month and bruises on the lower part of her neck, which Julissa Villanueva said indicates asphyxiation. Her killers evidently strangled her.
“After they subdued her, and the young woman was half-dead, they shot her," she said.
Julissa Villanueva said the young agent was likely seated when they shot her.
“Even her heels show blood splatter,” she said.
Villanueva also found the ATIC agents’ handling of the victim’s cell phone at the scene of the crime to be suspect. The crime scene photos show the phone placed in three sites in the bedroom while investigators were present. In the last photo, it was submerged in a plastic pitcher of water.
Bloody fingerprints can also be seen on the left side of Hernández Mancía’s pillow. Yet no fingerprints were analyzed at the crime scene, according to the crime scene report.
InSight Crime sent emails and messages to Castro, ATIC’s director, with questions about the handling of evidence, the investigation and Julissa Villanueva’s findings. He did not provide a response. Inquiries to Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla through his press office also went unreturned.
Copán, a Death and Two Possible Motives
Though a few initial reports linked Hernández Mancía’s death to her work, Castro and the ATIC showed themselves to be reluctant to investigate or follow up on any lead that might advance that theory.
Wilfredo García, the ATIC director in San Pedro Sula, instead pushed the idea that Hernández Mancía killed herself because of financial problems. García had been in a romantic relationship with Hernández Mancía, and he apparently reported that she had a vehicle repossessed, according to a Tiempo Digital article published in September 2018, three months after her death.
García’s name came up again in an April 2019 New York Times article that looked at Hernández Mancía’s death in the broader context of women murdered in Honduras. People close to the case told reporter Sonia Nazario that García was married to the sister of an MS13 gang member, and Hernández Mancía began to suspect that he was working for the group.
InSight Crime was able to verify that García was transferred to an administrative position after Hernández Mancía’s death. Several attempts were made to contact him through the country's security ministry, but the requests went unanswered.
Hernández Mancía had investigated the MS13 before. As an agent in San Pedro Sula, she took part in Operation Avalanche, a wide-ranging investigation that led to the dismantling of MS13 money laundering networks and the seizure of about 2,000 assets -- including properties, homes, businesses and vehicles -- valued at 50 million lempiras (about $2 million). Targets of the investigation included gang leader Alexander Medoza, alias "El Porky," who was freed in a military-style raid at a courthouse in February this year.
In her position as head of the anti-corruption unit in Copán, Hernández Mancía had also begun investigating links among ATIC agents and local drug traffickers, a prosecutor familiar with the case, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive subject matter, told InSight Crime.
The western department of Copán sits at the nexus of narco-politics in Honduras. It is home to the border town of El Paraíso, run for years by the former drug trafficking mayor Amilcar Alexander “Chande” Ardón. Ardón testified last year that he facilitated cocaine shipments for President Juan Orlando Hernández’s brother, Tony, and provided millions of dollars in drug proceeds to President Hernández’s election campaigns.
Colleagues of Hernández Mancía told news outlet La Tribuna that she had seized documents in the mayors’ offices in a number of towns in the weeks before her death. According to them, the agent was investigating irregular financial activity involving local politicians, drug traffickers and gang members.
The investigation started because of suspicions that gang members were linked to drug traffickers in the region, a prosecutor in Copán, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, told InSight Crime.
Findings Quietly Dismissed More Than a Year Later
By the one-year anniversary of Hernández Mancía’s death in 2019, the Attorney General’s Office had little to say about the case, other than that the FBI was participating in the investigation, which it was not.
But on Friday, September 27, more than 15 months after her body was found, the Attorney General’s Office issued a six-paragraph press release declaring that Hernández Mancía’s death was not a homicide, but a suicide.
None of Julissa Villanueva’s findings seemed to have been taken into account, nor the suspicions that Hernández Mancía had been killed because of her work.
The news release contains few details about what led investigators to conclude that Hernández Mancía committed suicide, though it makes reference to a “financial analysis,” “psychological autopsies” and “evidence coupled with risk factors.”
The oblique wording seems to refer to the earlier statements that Hernández Mancía was in distress over debt, leading her to take her own life.
Hernández Mancía’s mother and other family members repeatedly said she was not in debt and have long demanded -- to no avail -- that the ATIC be removed from the investigation.
After the announcement, her family members went with human rights advocates to the Attorney General’s Office to request all the documents from the investigation.
“She discovered something within the ATIC and that is why they killed her,” Johny Macías, Hernández Mancía’s uncle, told reporters.
Threats Won't Bring Silence
In Honduras, speaking out comes at a price, especially if it involves investigating connections between organized crime and power.
In the days after Hernández Mancía’s death, Julissa Villanueva and her colleagues at the San Pedro Sula morgue began to receive threats, according to a 2018 complaint submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos - CIDH).
The petition, which was ultimately upheld by the CIDH, mentions a threat to Karla Beltrán, assistant to the regional director of forensic medicine in San Pedro Sula. Beltrán, the complaint says, was taken aside by someone at the morgue who claimed to be soliciting work there. Holding her by the elbow, he asked her name, and then told her that there were armed men in a car.
“Look at them without them noticing. Take care of yourself because they want to kill you, they’ve been watching you for days,” she was told, according to the CIDH report.
Later, an agent from the intelligence division of the national police (Dirección de Inteligencia de la Policía Nacional - DIPOL) told Julissa Villanueva that the threats were “real and very serious,” and that “dangerous and suspicious persons” had been seen in cars outside the San Pedro Sula morgue.
For a time, Julissa Villanueva received police protection. “They were going to kill us for maintaining that, from the point of view of forensics, this case was a homicide, and for denouncing that there were irregularities in how the crime scene was managed,” she told InSight Crime.
But she also came under attack from the Attorney General’s Office for speaking out. Julissa Villanueva, who two years ago received an International Women of Courage Award from US first lady Melania Trump, was reprimanded in series of citations and forced to appear before a disciplinary board several times.
In November 2019, she was removed from her position as head of forensic medicine, which she attributes to her insistence that Hernández Mancía was murdered. In January 2020, Julissa Villanueva said she was fired.
But she has continued to take on the Attorney General.
“I told him that I am not going to permit the discrediting of all of our work, simply because you don’t want to believe us,” she said. “I don’t know why they don’t want to believe us if we work for the same institution. What is happening?”
The ATIC and the Attorney General's Office have not answered her many questions about the death inquiry: the wall without blood splatter, the body moved from the floor, the neck bruises and the cell phone that ended in a pitcher of water, among others.
Until these questions are answered, the young agent who investigated organized crime will continue to have two deaths.
*Victoria Dittmar contributed in the investigation for this report.