María José Alvarado, Miss Honduras, was just days away from traveling to London to represent Honduras in the Miss World contest when she was shot in the back and buried in a shallow grave. Her killing was punishment for little more than being at a party where her sister danced with a man who wasn't her boyfriend, authorities say.
The murder of María José Alvarado on November 13 along with her sister Sofia allegedly at the hands of Sofia's boyfriend, Plutarco Ruiz, shocked Honduras and led to soul-searching over the issue of violence against women — even in a place with the world's highest homicide rate.
Crowned Miss Honduras in April, María José, 19, was the youngest of three sisters and finishing her last year of a computer science program in the Honduran department of Santa Barbara. Authorities described a brutal and senseless incident that ended her life.
"According to the information we have, the murder occurred during a birthday party for Plutarco, after he had an argument with Sofia," said Lt. Col. Ramon Castillo, public security chief in Santa Barbara, in interviews with local radio outlets.
The sisters' bodies were discovered on November 19, six days after their disappearance. Plutarco Ruiz was arrested for their killings the day before, even though he had been visiting the Alvarado family in the days after the girls' disappearance, pretending to know nothing of their whereabouts, relatives said.
"The corpses of Maria José and Sofia Alvarado were found in the La Arada municipality along the edge of a river, in an area that is hard to reach, where they were buried and covered in lye, in order to disguise the smell, and to speed up the decomposition process," Castillo said.
By then, an account of the attack had already circulated widely, and was confirmed by Castillo in an interview with VICE News at the sisters' funeral on November 20.
He said Ruiz pulled out a gun at his birthday party at a local resort and shot his girlfriend after seeing her dance with another man. Ruiz, 32, then shot María Jose twice in the back as she attempted to escape.
At 6 am the morning of their funeral, the caskets of the young women sat in a swampy street in the Galeras neighborhood of the small city of Santa Barbara, capital of the department of the same name. There, in front of their home, the girls' remains were prepared for the funeral underneath a tarp, surrounded by plastic chairs for friends and family members in mourning.
"She was humble and kind," one of María José's classmates, who declined to reveal her name, told VICE News sadly.
Between 2010 and 2012, Honduras notched the highest homicide rate in the world. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the homicide rate reached 90.4 per 100,000 residents in 2012, the last full year with complete data.
Former Honduran attorney general Luis Alberto Rubí acknowledged that 80 percent of homicides in the country are unpunished because "investigative organs don't have the capacity to respond," he said in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report titled "There Are No Investigations Here."
'The murderer arrived at the house the following day, to invite the girls to lunch, acting surprised.'
The case seemed to symbolize for many the public-safety problems faced by Honduras, and in particular, by women. According to the Center for Women's Rights in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, 328 women have been murdered in Honduras in the first 10 months of 2014, which the organization called an alarming figure.
"The increase in femicides is the consequence of a culture of machismo and misogyny that blames women who defy power, justifying violence when the women are not feminine, when they don't go home early or when they are not submissive," the center said in a press release after the sisters' murders. "This same culture uses this mechanism to control women's bodies and lives, reinforcing the violent responses against them."
Indeed, in private and in public statements, several news outlets and people who even knew the sisters found reason to at least partly blame the women for their deaths at the hands of others. "The parents have to pay more attention to their children, know who they are going out with," a local newscaster said during a broadcast, in a sentiment that echoed elsewhere.
María Diana Baide, a 19-year-old friend of María José who knew her since kindergarten, told VICE News: "It was the sister who led her to this." Even a few journalists were heard concluding the sisters' murders were a "crime of passion."
But others offered a different view.
"This was not a passion crime, this is machismo," said Salvador Nasralla, a former presidential candidate and host of the show X-0 Da Dinero, a program in which María José modeled.
The suspect in the sisters' killings was known as a small-time drug dealer in Santa Barbara, Castillo said.
"The bull, the big narco, was his brother, David Ruiz, who was assassinated in February of this year, and he left Plutarco everything he owned," security chief Castillo told VICE News. "He is a person who solved everything with a pistol in his hand."
José Mejía, rector of the Technological University in Santa Barbara, told VICE News in an interview that the sisters' brutal killings reflect a wider trend of violence linked to the drug trade in Honduras, a Central American country considered a key trafficking point for South American cocaine on its way to Mexico and the United States.
"This region is imbued with narco culture, the culture of violence and death," Mejía said. "The television is the largest free narco university we have. Boys now imitate what they see in Colombian soap operas, where they teach viewers what it's like to be a narco."
From November 13, when the two girls went missing, to November 19, when the victims' bodies were found, the killer visited the Alvarado family several times, family members said.
"The murderer arrived at the house the following day, to invite the girls to lunch, acting surprised," the girls' uncle, Claudio Muñoz, told VICE News. "We didn't file a report on Friday, because we were hoping there would be a call asking for ransom."
"On Saturday, I went with their mother to file a report, and the killer came with us. After the police interviewed him, he kept coming over to the house, for several days, saying that he had nothing to do with it," Muñoz said. "If they took days to resolve this it was because everyone is intimidated by [the Ruiz] family — the witnesses, the people who were at the party, the people who work at the resort."
Ruiz is being charged with the crime of femicide, local reports said. The owners of the resort where the murders occurred have also been detained in connection with the Alvarado deaths. Vicente Díaz Ponce and his wife Elizabeth Alvarado Nájera were arrested on November 19, accused of kidnapping and covering up the crimes. Two other men were arrested in connection to the case.
Teresa de Jesus Muñoz, the young women's mother, and her last surviving daughter, Corina Alvarado, have reportedly sought political asylum in the US, citing fear for their safety.
For the victims' family, the attention paid to the deaths of María José and Sofia Alvarado doesn't offer much comfort for them, or the families of other victims of violence in Honduras.
"If she wouldn't have been Miss Honduras, this crime, just like all of the rest, would never have been solved," the girls' uncle Claudio said. "Here, no one speaks."