Walter Tróchez spent a lot time at Honduras police stations and morgues: he was the HIV-positive gay activist who got the call every time a transgender sex worker was murdered on the streets of Honduras.
His phone rang often. Human rights advocates say up to 18 gay and transgender men have been killed nationwide -- as many as the five prior years -- in the nearly six months since a political crisis rocked the nation. Activists say the spike illustrates a breakdown in the rule of law in a country already known for hate crimes.
Tróchez is now among the victims. Last week, just days after he escaped a six-hour kidnapping ordeal, an unknown assailant fired at him from a moving vehicle, silencing one of Honduras' most prominent voices in the gay community. Tróchez had also become a leader in the "Resistance Movement'' that demands the return of ousted president Manuel "Mel'' Zelaya, raising questions about whether his murder was related to hate -- or politics.
The next day, the headless and castrated body of a transvestite was found on the highway near San Pedro Sula.
"Walter was afraid,'' said Reina Rivera, director of the Center for the Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights, known by its acronym in Spanish, CIPRODEH. "He was a leader in the Resistance, but we thought he was in a precarious situation because he was also HIV-positive and gay in a patriarchal, machista and homophobic society.''
Prior to Tróchez's murder, CIPRODEH enlisted New York attorney David Brown to research the issue of violence against the LGBT community. Brown documented 171 acts of violence since 2004, including rapes, stabbings, beatings and murders. Brown tallies another 10 murders since Zelaya's June ouster, but activists in Tegucigalpa say they count 18. Brown said his number is lower because he only counts incidents that were clearly hate crimes.
A May 2009 Human Rights Watch report said there were 17 murders of transgender people -- many of them prostitutes -- from 2004 to 2008.
"Since the coup, there's been a noticeable uptick in violence,'' Brown said. "There is a social breakdown and a breakdown in law enforcement. You walk into government offices and you get the sense that nobody is doing anything.''
Honduras is currently ruled by an interim government that took power after the military ousted the president at gunpoint. The former president is at the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, and much of the de facto government's attention the past few months has been focused on remaining in power.
A new administration takes over Jan. 27.
"It's not necessarily that people from the government are committing these crimes,'' Brown said, "but it's clear that it's open season on this community.''
The Human Rights Watch report suggests authorities are responsible for much of the violence. The report quoted several transgender sex workers saying they had been raped and even stabbed by police officers who demanded sexual favors.
The report cites an ambiguous Honduran law that allows police to pick up people for "immoral behavior'' as a root of the problem.
"This is the same speech as always,'' said Honduran National Police spokesman Orlin Cerrato. "There is a tendency by people that have that orientation or belong to the Resistance to blame everything on the police. We don't accuse anyone until we have evidence. It's irresponsible.''
Cerrato said Tróchez's murder is under investigation and discounted reports that his Dec. 5 kidnapping might have been committed by undercover officers.
In his complaint to human rights groups, Tróchez said his kidnappers whizzed past police road blocks unfettered, suggesting the vehicle was an unmarked police car.
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"That's what they want the international community to believe,'' Cerrato said. "There is a great distance between what they say and the truth.''
A spokesman for the Honduran Attorney General's office said no one there would be available for comment -- everyone working the Tróchez case left for vacation Wednesday and will be out until January.
Activists are not surprised: of the 171 cases Brown documented, there have been arrests in only three.
"I have filed reports many times,'' transgender sex worker Cynthia Nicole told Human Rights Watch last year. "They put them away and archive them. . . . Our human rights abuses are not a priority for them.''
In January, a few weeks after her testimony, she was shot and killed.
"Everybody that I know is getting killed,'' said Juliana Cano Nieto, a researcher for Human Rights Watch's LGBT rights program. "The political unrest in Honduras has made it harder for transgender people. People don't understand and don't like transgender people, so they kill them. And they kill them because the government does not speak out against it.''
Tróchez was not transgender or a sex worker, but he visited them in jail, in the hospital and arranged for their funerals. He distributed condoms and offered anti-violence workshops.
A ZELAYA SUPPORTER
He parlayed that activism to the anti-coup movement, incorporating a historically shunned community alongside labor unions, teachers and peasants, Rivera said.
In July, he was one of roughly 1,000 Zelaya supporters who protested in front of Honduras' United Nations offices calling for the deposed leader's return.
"They took him away from power because they were scared that Mel was a friend of all people,'' Tróchez told The Miami Herald that day. "He cared about the people that everyone else wants to forget -- the people who live on the margins, [blacks], the homosexual community.''
While other marchers shouted their rhetoric, he spoke calmly as people stopped to hug and kiss him.
"We're suppose to be living in a civil society, not a military state,'' Tróchez said.
After years of separation from his family, he had recently reconciled with his father, a Lousiana house painter who admits he first rejected his son for his sexual orientation. Now, the elder Tróchez said, he feels only pride and a thirst for justice.
"I said to him, `Why are you staying there?' '' Ricardo Tróchez said. "Walter said: `I know they are going to kill me, but I have to stay. I am defending people's rights.' ''
Miami Herald reporter Laura Figueroa contributed to this report.