The violent death of nursing student Keyla Patricia Martínez Rodríguez while in police custody in Honduras recalls the worst accusations of brutality and impunity that have beset the country's National Police for decades.
Shortly before midnight on February 6, police agents detained Keyla Martínez and a male friend in La Esperanza, Intibucá, in southern Guatemala, after receiving a complaint about a disturbance. They were locked up in separate jail cells at the city’s police station.
According to the first police report, the young woman was found dying in the jail cell at about 2:30 a.m., and the police were quick to say that Martínez had tried to commit suicide.
"When she was found in the cell, she still showed vital signs and was transferred to Intibucá hospital, where she died,” officer Melvin Alvarenga stated on February 7, according to La Prensa.
But the report produced by the medical staff who received the body contradicted the police version: Keyla Martínez had already died when she arrived at the hospital, Tiempo Digital reported.
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On February 12, six days after Martínez died, the man who was arrested alongside her, Edgar José Velásquez Orellana, said in a television interview that he heard her say, "I want to die," shortly before she is believed to have died. antes de su muerte.
The first forensic report was released by the Attorney General 's Office contradicted the suicide theory. Yuri Mora, spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office also stated said that Martínez's preliminary cause of death was mechanical asphyxiation and was in consistent with suicide. Following this, a spokesperson for the National Police changed tack and stated that no cause of death had been ruled out.
An investigation has been opened into the police officers involved in the arrest and transfer of Keyla Martínez and her death has been reclassified as a homicide by the police.
An anonymous source involved in the investigation told Criterio that the body of the young woman presented evidence of forceful blows to the head, neck and mouth inflicted with a flat object. The examinations also suggest that someone introduced foreign objects in the victim's mouth. Forensic scientists performed vaginal tests to determine whether there was sexual abuse but the results are not yet known.
An official from the Attorney General's Office, who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, stated that one hypothesis is that the young woman was beaten to death by officers at the police headquarters in La Esperanza. "It is a common pattern of police abuse in prisons,” the official said.
For now, six police officers from La Esperanza have been submitted to forensic examinations.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Keyla Martínez case is a tragic reminder of a pattern that has become all too common in Honduras: suicide being used as a cover-up when somebody dies in police custody or at the hands of security forces.
The motive behind the young woman's apparent killing remains unclear. A source within the Attorney General's Office cited by Criterio stated that a so-called extermination group was believed to exist within the La Esperanza police headquarters and was allegedly responsible for several femicides in Intibucá department. The National Police has denied these allegations.
Hedme Castro, the director of human rights organization ACI-Participa and who has advised the family of Keyla Martínez since her death, firmly believes this case proves the existence of extermination groups within the Honduran police.
"This is living proof of extermination groups, of the impunity with which they commit their crimes and their use of excessive force,” Castro told InSight Crime.
Julissa Villanueva, former director of forensics within the Attorney General's Office, acknowledges that this case fits a certain pattern. "A death under police custody is the responsibility of the State," she told InSight Crime.
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In January 2018, a man accused of belonging to MS13 was detained and strangled to death. Police first chalked it up to homicide by a third party but a police officer was later found guilty of the murder.
Sherill Yubissa Hernández, an anti-corruption investigator within the Attorney General's Office, was also murdered in Copán department in June 2018. While Honduran authorities insist Hernández committed suicide, InSight Crime reported on severe inconsistensies in the forensics report and investigation into her death.
Amnesty International has called on the Honduran state for an immediate, impartial and exhaustive investigation into the death of Keyla Martínez. Meanwhile, residents of La Esperanza have organized demonstrations to call on the National Police to investigate, which has provoked violent clashes in the city.