Trans Murder Goes Uninvestigated

The case is currently before the IACHR at the merits stage.

Leonela Zelaya’s Transfemicide Is Symptomatic of Honduras’ Culture of Impunity Towards LGBTQ+ Murders

In August 2004, Honduran trans woman Leonela Zelaya was arbitrarily detained and held incommunicado for almost 24 hours, during which time she was beaten with batons and gun-butted by police agents in Honduras. Less than one month later, she was found dead, stabbed through the chest. Her body was discovered on a major street in Comayagüela, where it sat overnight before being removed. It took 14 years for Leonela’s case to be investigated.

Born in Cortes, Honduras, Leonela found life as a trans woman exceedingly difficult. Her gender identity, coupled with her career as a sex worker, made her a constant target of violence and discrimination. But Leonela’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. LGBTQ+ individuals in Honduras face one of the most critical situations of increasing human rights violations and insecurity in the Americas, and transgender individuals experience regular transphobia and violent attacks—including from those individuals meant to protect them: state agents.

When Leonela was beaten by police, she was refused medical treatment, despite having visible bruises covering her body and a fever from the beatings. The police failed to collect crucial evidence in Leonela’s case or to identify witnesses. A decade and a half after that inaction, the Honduran state admitted that the investigation file for Leonela’s murder went missing for 14 years.

Why is this a key case?

Police inaction and impunity for perpetrators in transfemicides and other LGBTQ+ cases is rampant in Honduras. Between 2009 and 2019, 312 LGBTQ+ individuals were murdered; only 67 cases were prosecuted. Fewer than one-third of the prosecuted cases ended in a conviction. The rest remain unpunished by the state, with many killings completely uninvestigated.

How is RFK Human Rights Supporting Leonela’s Case?

Along with leading Honduran LGBTQ+ partner organization Red Lésbica Cattrachas, RFK Human Rights is litigating the case before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Both organizations seek to hold the Honduran government accountable for failing to prevent Leonela’s murder, for its lack of due diligence in investigating transfemicides, and for the discrimination victims faced for being trans women.

Name of the case (as it appears in the respective legal mechanism)

Leonela Zelaya v. Honduras

Month/Year of filing

December 2012 (RFKHR joined as co-counsel in 2015)

Legal mechanism in which the case is being litigated

Inter-American Court on Human Rights

Rights and legal instruments alleged violated (OR found to have been violated)

Articles 1.1  (obligation to respect rights), 2 (domestic legal effects), 4 (right to life), 5 (right to humane treatment), 8 (right to a fair trial), 11 (honor and dignity), 13 (freedom of thought and expression), 24 (right to equal protection), 25 (right to judicial protection) of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. Article 7 (to live free of violence) of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women “Convention of Belém do Pará”.

Procedural stage

Pending before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights 


RFKHR and Red Lésbica Cattrachas

Case Partners

  • Red Lésbica Cattrachas

    We partnered to combat gender-based violence and to advance LGBTQ+ rights in Honduras. Our work together includes the 2015 case Leonela Zelaya v. Honduras and, more recently, Vicky Hernandez et al. v. Honduras.