Luis Alonso Cabrera was too weak to move. Were it not for the barely noticeable movement of his lips and the faint breathing that made the pink sheet that covered his naked body rise and fall ever so slightly, he could have been mistaken for a corpse. With an almost imperceptible twitch of his nose, the helpless 24-year-old man tried to fend off a stubborn fly that buzzed around his face.
Then the camera zoomed in on his neck. From a festering wound swarmed white maggots.
Two weeks earlier, Cabrera had been found lying on the roadside after gang members tortured him with electric shocks. He had been taken to a public hospital in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, but his ordeal had just begun.
For several months, the Mario Catarino Rivas Hospital had been controlled by an armed gang known as Los Zopilotes (The Vultures). The gang forced visitors to pay an extortion fee to be allowed to see their ailing relatives. They ransacked the hospital’s medicine supplies and sold them on the black market. And they hastened the death of terminally ill patients in order to turn the dead over to funeral parlors and demand a “commission fee” for each coffin. The hospital’s security guards, who complained that their wages hadn’t been paid for the past six months, willingly cooperated with the gang and acted as enforcers, forbidding entry to anyone who refused to pay the extortion fee.
When Cabrera arrived, the hospital was in such a state of disarray that no one tended his wounds, fed him, or changed his bed. He was simply abandoned, and now he was slowly being eaten alive.
Plagued by drug trafficking, gang violence, and corruption, Honduras is a country that is falling apart at the seams. San Pedro Sula, with a murder rate of 173 per 100,000 inhabitants (compared with 4.78 in the United States), overtook Ciudad Juarez in 2013 as the most violent city in the world, according to the Mexican think tank Citizen’s Council on Public Safety and Criminal Justice. Only 2 percent of crimes are solved, and police corruption is widespread. And since the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya from power in 2009, violence has become even more entrenched.
The images of Cabrera agonizing on a hospital bed, broadcast by Honduras’s Televicentro news channel July 9, were so horrific that a country that has become numb to violence was stirred into action.
In the wake of the scandal, President Juan Orlando Hernández sent in the military police to take control of the hospital and stamp out corruption. Cabrera died just hours before the Televicentro broadcast. An official investigation into his death was launched.
But for Lourdes Ramírez, life was about to change. Ramírez is the Honduran journalist who had doggedly pursued the story about the unscrupulous gang that had hijacked the hospital, sending in her team of reporters to film Cabrera’s desperate plight and then sharing the footage with the country’s largest news channel.
Two men began to loiter near the small KTV news studio where she worked. Ramírez and her family members were followed and photographed. Her cellphone became flooded with anonymous threats. “The head of the National Inter-Institutional Security Force, Colonel Germán Alfaro, told me that it was all because of the hospital scandal. He said I had no idea what I had gotten myself into,” said Ramírez.
Ramírez, who had already requested time off to visit relatives in the United States, decided to change the date of her flight and leave the country immediately. She recalls that when she left, her boss Carlos Martínez, the director of KTV news, had been empathetic and supportive. However, for reasons that can only be explained as fear of reprisals, Ramírez says that he now claims that KTV reporters were never threatened and that Ramírez was sacked for unauthorized absence. According to Ramírez, Alfaro has also changed his version of events and now claims that there’s no evidence linking the threats to her expose.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of working as Ramírez’s editor as part of the Investigative Reporting Initiative for the Americas, a project supported by the International Center for Journalists. She was bright, diligent and hard-working. “We live in fear,” she said, when I asked her to describe what it’s like to work in a country where 37 journalists have been killed since President Zelaya was ousted in 2009. “You know there’s certain issues that you just can touch or that you can only touch very superficially.”
An independent media with journalists who are willing to risk their personal safety to expose corruption might be the only hope for change in countries such as Honduras. But if we fail to support whistle-blowers and truth tellers such as Ramírez or if we stand by while they are gagged and silenced, that glimmer of hope will slowly dwindle.
Ramírez refused to be silenced. She put her life on the line to tell Cabrera’s story, which is the story of all Hondurans today. After her US visa expired a few days ago, she has no other choice but to return home. As she prepares to leave, I fear for her and pray for her safety.Louisa Reynolds, an independent journalist based in Guatemala City, is the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2014-2015 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow.