In 2014, a 19-year-old small town girl named Maria Jose Alvarado catapulted onto the world stage when her brilliant smile and sweet personality won her the Miss Honduras crown. With a freshly minted passport, she was set to compete for the prestigious Miss World title in London, a trip which would be the first plane ride of her life.
But her dreams of glamour and glory were never to be. Just a few days before she was set to leave for the competition, Alvarado and her sister, 23-year-old Sofia Trinidad, were brutally murdered. Their bodies were hidden in shallow graves in a riverbank in Santa Barbara, Honduras, discovered after a week-long manhunt that made international headlines. Their joint funeral was broadcast around the world and attended by thousands.
But even their grieving mother Teresa Muñoz knows the bitter truth: the only thing unusual about their daughter’s murders was that police and the media paid attention.
“Here in Honduras, women aren’t worth anything,” said Muñoz, wiping away tears. She believes that the only reason her daughters’ bodies were found is because of Maria Jose’s fame. Otherwise, she says, she would probably still be looking for answers.
The night Maria Jose Alvarado was killed, she tagged along to her sister’s boyfriend’s birthday party. That boyfriend, then 32-year-old Plutarco Ruiz, was known as a powerful man in Santa Barbara. The night of his birthday party, authorities say they believe Ruiz shot his girlfriend Sofia after a jealous argument. They say he then turned his gun on Maria Jose as she tried to flee the scene.
“He shot her 12 times in the back,” her mother said. “Because of his machismo that this happened.”
Much of this gender-based violence, according to Honduran activists like Neesa Medina, is due to a sexist “machismo” culture of gangs, guns, and girls, where a man’s power is often measured in bullets. Combine this with a government unable to cope with a relentless tide of drug-related crime, Medina says, you get a culture where women are disposable.
“Men can do anything they want to women in Honduras,” said Medina, an analyst with Honduras’ Center for Women’s Rights. “Because we think that it’s common and it’s something that you can be expected of, living here.”
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