Police Claimed Her Jail Death Was Suicide. After Months of Outrage, a Cop Was Just Charged With Murder

Keyla Martínez, a 26-year-old nursing student, was detained for a COVID curfew violation in Honduras in February. She was found dead in a police cell hours later.
May 6, 2021, 12:30pm
Women's organisations march to demand justice for the death of nursing student Keyla Martinez on International Women's Day in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on March 8, 2021.
Women's organisations march to demand justice for the death of nursing student Keyla Martinez on International Women's Day in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on March 8, 2021. Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images.

A police officer in Honduras was arrested and charged with femicide for the murder of a young woman whose death in February inside a jail cell sparked outrage in Latin America’s most dangerous country for women. The arrest is a rare example of both a police officer being officially accused of a crime as well as the use of the charge of femicide. 

The indictment presents a stark contrast to the version of events first presented by police, which claimed that Keyla Martínez, a 26-year-old nursing student, had committed suicide within hours of being detained for a pandemic curfew violation. 

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“The hypothesis of the police was that [Martínez] hanged herself,” said Yuri Mora, spokesperson for the public prosecutor’s office. “However, when the autopsy was done it was determined that she died of asphyxiation.”

“The corruption is evident,” said Norma Rodriguez, the grieving mother of Martínez. “They thought that we were going to bury my daughter thinking that she had committed suicide. They didn’t count on us not believing their bullshit.”

The results of the investigation by prosecutors also call into question statements made to the media by a supposed friend of Martínez, Dr. Edgar Velasquez, who had been driving her home when the two were stopped by police. 

“Things don’t match up,” said Rodriguez. “The doctor lied from the beginning. He came to my house with the lie already made up.” 

On the evening of February 6, Martínez, who was visiting her hometown in western Honduras, went out to dinner with Velasquez and other friends. On the way home, Velasquez was pulled over and the two were cited for a curfew violation and brought to the local police station to spend the night. Hours later, she was dead. 

The next morning, the police said that she had hung herself inside her cell using the sweater she wore to keep warm in one of the coolest regions of the country. In the following days, Velasquez gave multiple interviews to the media, saying that Martínez had become suddenly distraught after singing to pass the time for him and other male detainees who listened from the cell next door.  

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“I want to die. I’m going to hang myself with my sweater,” Velasquez claimed Martínez said before she went quiet. No longer receiving a response from her, he said he shouted for the police, but that about ten minutes passed before anyone came to see what was going on. 

According to prosecutors, however, a video from inside the police station shows a police officer, Jarol Perdomo, who has now been charged with murder, entering Martínez’s cell, where he remained for about five to six minutes. Upon exiting the cell Perdomo acted suspiciously, including abandoning his post for a time, said Mora, who added that the accused was the one in charge of the keys for the cells. 

Not long after, another officer walked by the cells and, according to the investigation, discovered Martínez hanging from the bars on her cell door. That officer quickly rushed for help, but it was too late. By the time the police arrived at the nearest hospital with Martínez’s body, doctors said she had already been dead for some time. 

During his interviews with the media, Velasquez avoided saying what he believed to be the cause of death for Martínez. Given the new information, Rodriguez now believes he’s involved in some sort of cover-up. 

“He sold her out,” said Rodriguez. “We demand that he be investigated as a primary suspect in the death of my daughter.”

“The investigation is still ongoing,” said Mora, who noted that there are inconsistencies between Velasquez’s comments and the results of the investigation thus far. “It’s possible in the future that the indictment could be expanded to include more people.” 

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A lawyer representing Velasquez did not respond to an interview request from VICE World News. 

Human rights activists say that the murder was not an isolated event, but rather part of a pattern of violence against women perpetrated by the local police and implicating more than just the accused officer. 

The month before the murder of Martínez, a pair of young women said that they were robbed, assaulted and nearly raped by police stationed at the same post. “Imagine a woman there alone. They could rape her and nobody would find out,” said one of the women in a chilling declaration given to a local news program at the time. 

“They had to flee the country,” said Cristina Alvarado, a representative of a women’s rights group, due to threats the women received after making the accusations. “Supposedly the police are here to serve and protect.” 

Violence against women in Honduras rarely results in an indictment, much less in the application of the charge of femicide. Still, given the suspicion revolving around the involvement of others in the murder of Martínez, and the lack of progress on other cases, activists say the country has a long way to go in the fight for justice.

“In the end [the authorities] dedicate themselves to responding to emblematic cases,” said Alvarado. “They simulate justice. But what about the 300 femicides that occurred in 2020 and the more than 75 in 2021? Where are the investigations of these cases?”

“If it weren’t for the protests,” she added, “then what might have happened in this case?”