Five years ago, the body of Sindy Marbella Alemán Cerrato was found in the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Tegucigalpa, the crime-infested capital of Honduras.
The 16-year-old had choked to death on a piece of red flannel that Manuel Pavon, leader of the congregation, had stuffed into her mouth to muffle her screams as he raped her.
There wasn't enough forensic evidence for police to go on. And though locals knew who the killer was — they had seen him with the victim and at the scene of the crime — they refused to talk to law enforcement.
But, there was a group they did trust. Sindy's family had seen them walk the streets of their poor community before, evangelicals-turned-unofficial homicide investigators who have had a surprising amount of success in a country that doesn't see much in the way of that.
The Association for a More Just Society (known in Honduras as the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa, or ASJ), a Christian not-for-profit organization, established the Peace and Justice Project (PJP) some ten years ago, and has been cultivating informants over cups of coffee and meals ever since.
Based out of a three-storey office in a gated community in the capital, the multi-disciplinary team helps Honduras' much-maligned police investigate murders, sexual assaults, and human trafficking in the poor, high-risk neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
It's not the only group in Latin America adopting unorthodox methods to address rampant violence in the face of police corruption and inaction. In El Salvador, the Catholic Church took the unusual step earlier this year of openly engaging in talks with gang members in a bid to bolster a truce — a truce that has evidently evaporated as crime soared last month. And in Mexico last year, the seeming inability of the state to keep communities safe spawned self-policing networks, with farmers and surgeons taking up arms side by side, and even leading people's court.
In Honduras, a country with a staggering impunity rate of 96 percent, the problem is especially acute. The profoundly poor and politically unstable nation sees anywhere from 140 to 300 tons of cocaine pass through its borders every year, fueling epic levels of violence and graft.
"Here, it is poor people killing poor people so there is not much pressure on the police to investigate," one of the PJP investigators told VICE News. "The people who live in these neighborhoods accept crime as a normal part of everyday life."
PJP claims to be the first venture of its kind in the world, and counts on ex-cops, lawyers, and psychologists to track down witnesses and build a case. They've dressed up as door-knocking political campaigners in order to get close to a killer who murdered someone for a Yamaha motorcycle. They've walked down alleys with rape victims in search of their attacker, and when he escaped from jail, summoned the media to ensure his face was well publicized.
The group has set up a sort of witness protection program in which people testifying in court have their identity completely concealed with the help of a voice converter and a stifling, black, hooded robe. Such measures were employed to help secure a 17-year sentence for Pavon, who was convicted of murder.
To date, the approach has yielded a 95 percent rate of conviction. In 2014, PJP — which says it obtains funding from foreign governments, development organizations, and private donors — helped the police apprehend 84 alleged murderers in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. It was involved in 16 court cases, all of which ended in a guilty verdict.
This year, a new investigative agency housed in the public prosecutor's office began negotiating how to replicate ASJ's methodology to approach extremely violent communities.
A mural in the ASJ headquarters pays tribute to an investigator who was assassinated in 2006. (Photo by Maria Vanta)
During a visit to San Pedro Sula — a city that repeatedly tops the danger charts with an annual homicide rate of 187 people per 100,000 — this spring, armed guards enlisted by PJP ensured safe passage.
Deep in the slums, amid discarded photo albums, gang graffiti, and abandoned abodes, the ruthless Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18 outfits rule the streets. They are constantly warring to gain more territory and recruits. Here, massacres are a weekly occurrence and the only way to tell between gangs is by their members' footwear (Calle 18 members exclusively wear Nike Cortes, while MS prefer Reeboks).
Residents of the slums are forced to pay "protection" money to the gangs or otherwise risk being killed. For many Hondurans, by now well-accustomed to headlines about rampant corruption among police, turning to law enforcement is a non-starter.
Human Rights Watch says the unlawful use of force in Honduras by police remains a "chronic problem" and that the agency in charge of policing reforms doles out punishment to a minuscule number of officers behaving badly. Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez is turning to militarization to quell the bloodshed. But Hernandez, too, has become ensnared in a corruption scandal, although not directly implicating him, that spurred protests this month demanding his resignation.
The statistics show that even in cases where the police become involved, most crimes are never formally investigated in Honduras.
"When only a fraction of murder reports lead to arrests, people stop trusting the justice system. They stop reporting crime and refuse to act as witnesses and to testify in court," said a PJP lawyer, who asked that his name not be published out of fear that they will become targets for retribution against the organization. Investigators routinely get death threats and in 2006, a member of PJP was assassinated during an investigation.
Argentina Fuentes, the head of homicide for the Honduran national police, told VICE News that their biggest hurdle is a lack of logistics.
"The truth is we do not have enough vehicles, computers and facilities," said Fuentes, who credited ASJ with helping to fill in some of those gaps.
The lack of coordination is made worse by the fact that not all departments keep electronic records. It's common for a suspect to have several pending warrants of arrest for different crimes, which get lost in the paperwork.
"There is corruption, sure, but they're not all bad," said a PJP lawyer of the police, adding that they work with officers, not against them.
Still, a drive through a crime-plagued community lodged into one of Tegucigalpa's precipitous hills illustrates the inherent challenges of policing it.
The houses here are mostly shanties, encircled by barbed wire, and built up a sharp slope that is connected by serpentine dirt roads. It's easy to imagine getting lost in the numerous dead ends and stairwells connecting the different elevations of the neighborhood.
The sprawling community is served by one police station, with just six officers, and only two on regular patrol.
"From all of our interviews in the country we saw and heard over and over again that residents in Tegucigalpa feel they can't trust the police and the institutions," said Pierina Sanchez, who co-authored a report on homicide reduction in Latin America for the United States Department of State, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.
"ASJ fills a very important void," she told VICE News.
Follow Maria Vanta on Twitter: @m_vanta
Watch the VICE News Documentary, "Immigrant America: Murder and Migration in Honduras."
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