Trans Murder Goes Uninvestigated
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 Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). 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.
What is the Status of the Case?
The case is currently before the IACHR at the merits stage.
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 Commission 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), 13 (freedom of thought and expression), 24 (right to equal protection), and 25 (judicial protection) of the 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”
RFKHR and Red Lésbica Cattrachas
For More Perspective
CAMPAIGN—#JusticiaParaVicky: The historic case of Vicky Hernández et al. v. Honduras
In the midst of the June 2009 Honduran coup d’état, with the streets of San Pedro Sula closed to all but military and police forces, 26-year-old trans woman Vicky Hernández’s body was found with a gunshot wound to the head.
Vicky’s story—and the impunity the state has granted her killers—is all too familiar in Honduras. In the decade since Vicky’s extrajudicial execution, more than 300 LGBTQ+ people have been targeted and killed for their gender identity; of those, only 67 cases have been prosecuted, resulting in fewer than 20 convictions.
Vicky Hernández et al. v. Honduras, litigated by Red Lésbica Cattrachas and RFK Human Rights, was the first case involving lethal violence against an trans person to reach the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
On June 28, 2021, exactly 12 years after Vicky’s murder, the Court made a landmark ruling holding the government of Honduras accountable for her death and issued a series of reparations, including financial support for Vicky’s family, that set a legal precedent for LGBTQ+ rights throughout the region.
Silvia Elena Rivera et al. v. MexicoLearn More