Americas

A 19-year-old searched for her brother at a protest. Then a bullet struck her forehead.

Kimberly Fonseca
Kimberly Fonseca Courtesy

In many ways, Kimberly Dayana Fonseca was like any other 19-year-old. Her family described her as the smart one of six, a spunky but sweet daddy’s girl, who loved to dance, and dreamed of living and studying abroad one day, maybe in Spain. But her life was cut short.

On Dec. 1, as Honduran Military Police enforced the first night of a curfew imposed following the country’s contested presidential elections, Fonseca stood to the side of a street occupation where several dozen young people protested the incumbent president. Witnesses say a rifle bullet — allegedly fired by the security force into the crowd — struck Fonseca in the forehead, blew out the back of her skull and killed her instantly.

“She turned into another martyr,” said Alejandra Martínez, a leader of the youth movement, the “Indignados” or “The Indignant Ones,” who was at the protest that night. “But in Honduras we don’t want more martyrs. We want our right to life respected.”

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Posters with Kimberly Fonseca’s image call for justice in her death. Courtesy

The death is one of at least 30 blamed on security forces policing protests in Honduras since November, according to a report by the Committee for the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), a Honduran non-governmental organization founded in the 1980s. The majority of deaths were at the hands of the Honduran Military Police, a highly militarized domestic security force, accused of widespread human rights abuses.

More than 90 percent of violent crimes in Honduras go unprosecuted, according to COFADEH. And Fonseca’s family worries that there will be no justice in her case or in others involving security officials.

Anti-corruption demonstrations erupted across Honduras in the days after the controversial Nov. 26 presidential election, when incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández overcame what election officials had previously deemed an “irreversible lead” held by his opponent, Salvador Nasralla of the opposition party, the Alliance Against the Dictatorship.

The U.S. Embassy recognized the 2017 election results as legitimate. However, election observers from the Organization of American States called for a redo after documenting widespread irregularities and evidence of electronic fraud.

Some of the largest demonstrations against the perceived fraud took place in Fonseca’s Villanueva neighborhood, a poor district located on a steep mountain slope on the outskirts of the capital city. Several dozen protesters occupied the main highway, about half a mile downhill from the Fonseca home on the day she was killed. They burned tires to block traffic, yelled anti-government chants, waved flags, and set off firecrackers, witnesses said.

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A protester throws a tear gas canisters at police and military during a confrontation in Villanueva, Tegucigalpa, on Dec. 15, 2017. Jeff Abbott Special to the Miami Herald

The National Police reasoned with demonstrators, initially allowing their demonstration, according to Martínez of the “Indignados” movement. But around 7 p.m., the Military Police moved in with billy clubs and tear gas to clear the road. Most protesters ran away from the gas, Martínez said, but a few tried to stand their ground.

Though a few threw tear gas canisters back at the police, several witnesses said most remained passive and no protester was armed, looting, or vandalizing. Nonetheless, after deploying the gas, the Military Police started shooting in the direction of the crowd, according to Martínez. Carlos Fonseca, Kimberly Fonseca’s father, had a perfect view from his living room. He said that sometime after 7 p.m., bullets started raining down on his fence outside.

“It looked like a war,” Carlos Fonseca said. “The protesters didn’t fear the bullets. They’d get removed from the street and then they would come right back again.”

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Kimberly Fonseca’s father, Carlos Fonseca, recounts his daughter death. Jeff Abbott Special to the Miami Herald

Soon, her family said, Kimberly Fonseca began to worry about her teenage brother, Eduardo, who she thought was out protesting. She and her friend, Kevin Vasquez, set out to bring Eduardo home. According to Vasquez, both he and Kimberly Fonseca supported the anti-government demonstrations, but thought it too dangerous to participate. So they stood at the edge of the protest, still looking for the brother as a newly imposed curfew set in.

“It was 11-something at night, and we were standing there, trying to find him, when suddenly the Military Police came from nowhere and started shooting,” Vasquez told the Miami Herald. “So we all started to run. [Kimberly Fonseca] ran the other direction and that’s when the bullet hit her.”

Kimberly Fonseca was dead before Vasquez arrived at her side. “It’s the worst I’ve ever felt,” he said. Just up the street, a 15-year-old protester suffered a gunshot wound to his back and was taken to the hospital in critical condition but survived.

From the Fonseca house, Kimberly Fonseca’s older sister, Luysa, and her father heard the rifle fire and screaming.

“We heard them shout from here, ‘They killed her. They killed her,’ ” Luysa Fonseca said. “I said, ‘Dad, call Kimberly.’ And we called and called and she didn’t answer.”

Panicked, Luysa Fonseca ran out the door without her shoes. When she arrived on the main street, no one could look her in the eyes. They pointed down the road to where her younger sister lay, near the pedestrian bridge, not breathing but eyes still open, splayed out on the road in her camo sweatpants and pink sneakers. A smear of dark blood framed her head and torso.

“When I saw her, lying there with all of the blood, I fainted,” Luysa Fonseca said. As soon as she came to, she ran to her sister. “When I grabbed her, I felt a huge hole in the back of her head.”

Before the family could move the body, they said a truck full of Military Police arrived and shot live rounds in their direction, forcing them to flee up the street, leaving Kimberly Fonseca behind. Her body was collected by a forensics team hours later.

The use of military-grade firearms against protesters has been widespread in post-election Honduras, according to various accounts from local news stations, human rights observers and activists. Martínez, the youth organizer, said she has been shot at by Military Police forces at almost every protest she has attended since the day after the election.

“In my colonia [neighborhood], Military Police repression has made the situation very complicated,” said Nohely Gutty, from a province in northern Honduras. “In the cases that they used bullets, it has been because they use up their tear gas and they don’t have anything left other than shooting.”

Gutty’s 12-year-old neighbor was shot in the lower back by Military Police wielding rifles in early December, but he survived. “They are that way because they are prepared for war, not to serve in the streets,” she said of the security force.

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Armed members of the Honduran Military Police stand alongside the road as protesters march on Dec. 10, 2017. Jeff Abbott Special to the Miami Herald

While the Military Police were most widely implicated in cases of protester deaths, COFADEH observers also attributed lethal violence to both the Honduran National Police and the Honduran Military during post-election protests.

The U.S. Leahy Law, a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, prohibits U.S. assistance to any foreign security force involved in grave human rights abuses.

“This case, and all other cases of protesters who were shot and killed or injured, should be thoroughly investigated,” Leahy said in an email. “That is the responsibility of the Government of Honduras. In the meantime, police units whose officers fired at unarmed protesters would be ineligible for U.S. Government assistance under the Leahy Law.”

Almost two weeks after Kimberly Fonseca’s death, her father received an odd phone call from a man who identified himself as Manuel, no last name, from the U.S. Embassy. “We are calling about Kimberly Fonseca’s case,” Manuel told Carlos Fonseca over the phone. “We are working on a project where we give help to families.”

It was mid-morning on Dec.13, and Manuel said he wanted to offer the family scholarships for the remaining children, and concrete to help build up their house, which is currently made of sheet metal and two-by-fours. When Fonseca asked what he wanted in return, Manuel replied: “The bullet casings.”

Immediately after the shooting, Kimberly Fonseca’s family and friends had picked up dozens of rifle casings off the street to use as potential evidence connecting the Military Police to the death.

“If there is no proof, they can say anything happened,” Carlos Fonseca said. The prosecutor’s office had already tried to blame Kimberly Fonseca’s death on a tear gas canister.

Upon arriving at the designated location, Manuel was leaning casually against the back of a gray Toyota pickup that had a personal plate, not the designated diplomatic plate like the ones used by the U.S. Embassy. He did not present any credentials that showed an affiliation with the embassy. He wore a blue polo shirt with white stripes and a black jacket. Another man with dark sunglasses waited in the truck.

“I think they were Honduran police,” said a nervous Carlos Fonseca after the meeting, which was witnessed by a reporter and photographer. Fonseca did not turn over the casings.

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“Manuel” speaks with Carlos Fonseca behind his pickup about the bullet casings and the potential assistance to the family. Jeff Abbott Special to the Miami Herald

The next day, Carlos Fonseca said that as he was driving that morning, Manuel’s gray truck began to tailgate him. Eventually, Fonseca parked and left the area on foot. That afternoon, he turned over the casings picked up from the scene of his daughter’s death to the prosecutor’s office.

For three weeks, the Miami Herald tried to obtain documents about Kimberly Fonseca’s case from the man leading the investigation, Luis Cardona, of the special prosecutor’s office dedicated to Military Police crimes. His spokesperson at the Public Ministry was to provide the autopsy report but so far has been unresponsive.

“I have no confidence in how the Public Prosecutor’s office is handling the case,” said Brenda Cruz, the family’s lawyer, adding that she has not received the autopsy report yet either, despite the family’s legal right to a copy.

In January 2017, the United Nations reprimanded the special prosecutor’s office for failure to comply with their investigation into a similar case.

“I don’t think we will see justice for Kimberly Fonseca,” said Vasquez, her friend. “There are many similar cases and I don’t see anything happen.”

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