The Death of a Young Woman in Police Custody Outrages Hondurans

Keyla Martínez, a 26-year-old student, died of asphyxiation when she was being held alone in a police cell. But many don't buy the police line that she committed suicide.
February 16, 2021, 4:39pm
Keyla Martinez
A member of the Honduran National Police stands in front of a poster that reads "Keyla Martinez didn't commit suicide. Investigate and punish the police," in La Esperanza, Honduras, on February 9, 2021. Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA,AFP via Getty Images

Tattooed on Keyla Martínez’s forearm was a stethoscope whose coiled tube blossomed into a lotus flower. It was a symbol of the 26-year-old nursing student’s love for her vocation. In a few months she would graduate, becoming the first in her family to achieve such a feat. 

She had a tattoo of a butterfly on her thigh, too. She loved butterflies, wearing them as pins in her hair, around her neck, dangling from her ears, and posing for pictures with her arms stretched wide like wings in front of murals. “It was like her logo,” said her mother, Norma Rodriguez. “She was my butterfly.”

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But on the night of February 6, Martínez’s promising young life came to a sudden and tragic end. After having dinner with friends in her hometown in western Honduras, she was on her way home when the police stopped the car she was riding in for a pandemic curfew violation. She and the driver were detained and jailed for the night. Hours later, she was dead. 

The next morning the police released a statement saying that Martínez had committed suicide. The results of an autopsy, however, ruled her death a homicide by asphyxiation, confirming what many had already suspected. 

“I never doubted that my daughter had been murdered because she didn’t have any reason to hurt herself,” said Rodriguez. “She was a very social person, loved by everyone.” 

The death of Martínez came amid a wave of suspected femicides that has sparked outrage in the most dangerous country in Latin America for women. That she died while in the custody of those who were supposed to protect her added to the indignation. 

“Women don’t feel protected,” said Claudia Herrmannsdorfer, a human rights lawyer. “The police are responsible for people in detention and there are certain norms to be followed.” 

In the week since that tragic night, Martínez, much like the noted environmentalist Berta Caceres who was murdered in the same town of La Esperanza years ago, was resurrected as a symbol of protest against the violence suffered by women in the country. At her funeral, and later in marches, mourners brandished white flags emblazoned with a butterfly. 

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Meanwhile, the mystery surrounding the circumstances of her death deepened. After several days of silence, the man who was driving the car and detained with Martínez, Dr. Edgar Velasquez, gave a series of interviews to the media recounting his version of events.

After arriving at the police station, Velasquez and Martínez were placed in separate, but adjacent cells, according to Velasquez. Martinez, the only woman detained for a curfew violation that night, was alone. Velasquez was with ten other men. The two couldn’t see each other, but they were close enough to communicate, he said. 

According to Velasquez, as the night wore on Martínez fell into despair. He and some of his cellmates attempted to lift her spirits but were unsuccessful. “I want to die. I’m going to hang myself with my sweater,” Velasquez said he recalled her saying. 

Unable to see what she was doing and no longer receiving a response, Velasquez shouted for the police. By the time they came to check, roughly ten minutes had passed. The police say they found her hanging by a sweater tied to the bars on the door. She was later brought to the hospital, but doctors said she had died well before arrival.

In response to Velasquez’s declarations, the public prosecutor’s office reiterated that its determination of the cause of death as a homicide had not changed. Notably, the autopsy also found bruising around Martinez’s mouth that is suggestive of being forcibly smothered. 

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“We don’t know if he’s lying or not. It will be the evidence that will determine that,” said Ramirez, amid rampant speculation in the local press and social media about Velasquez being threatened or having other motivations to participate in a cover-up. The lawyer he retained is known for representing corrupt politicians and drug traffickers, fueling conspiracy theories even more. 

A 26-second video circulating on social media shows Martinez and Velasquez in the back of a patrol truck soon after being detained. Velasquez argued belligerently with the police while Martinez serenely rubbed his shoulder and attempted to calm him down. 

The police in La Esperanza appear to also have a record of criminal and corrupt behaviour, and in particular, violence against women. In January, a pair of young women said that they were robbed, assaulted and nearly raped by the police. “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. 

Allegedly under threat after making the accusations, the women reportedly were forced to go into hiding. No immediate actions were taken against the accused officers despite a formal complaint. 

Last year, a new penal code was approved that reduces the sentence for rape. Furthermore, despite hundreds of femicides per year, it has only been applied as an aggravating circumstance in a handful of cases since its inclusion in the code in 2013. There were 298 cases of femicide in 2019, according to the Violence Observatory at the national university in Tegucigalpa, but observers think that the number of hate-killings against women in Honduras are much higher. 

“When it comes to crimes against women, the woman has to prove that despite whatever she has done, despite having dressed a certain way, despite having gone out at night with friends, whatever, that she was killed or that she is a victim,” said Herrmannsdorfer.

The death of Martínez and other women has deepened the resolve of those who are determined to prevent more women from suffering the same fate. 

“We’re afraid of what we’re facing, but I’m not going to be silenced,” said Rodriguez. “I’m always going to shout for justice, not just for my daughter but also for the multitude of women that have been vilely murdered.”