Martha Lopez* climbs the three flights of stairs with the corner of her robe clutched in her hand, barely able to see through the black mesh hood that covers her head. She leans heavily on Daniel*, a criminal investigator whose heavy build would be more intimidating were it not for his kind eyes.
Only once Martha is in the upper room and she hears the door click shut behind her does she dare to pull the covering off of her head, revealing a woman in her early forties with carefully-done makeup around her weary eyes. She looks around at a small group of familiar, smiling faces, her hands still shaking with fear.
Martha’s black robes, head covering, secret visit, and shaking hands – all are part of her life as a protected witnesses, preparing to give testimony in the case of her nephew’s murder.
In a country where impunity is staggering, and where witnesses often have more to fear than criminals, it takes an enormous amount of bravery to be standing in this upper room this morning. It also takes an enormous amount of trust.
Martha lives in one of Honduras’ most dangerous neighborhoods, where gangs scuffle over the right to extort small businesses and gunshots ring out in the night. Recently, Martha lost her nephew to this violence.
When Martha met AJS investigator Daniel by chance in the police station, he told her first about the psychological counseling that AJS offered to families of homicide victims. Then he told her that he and his colleague could help with the investigation and trial of the case.
From that day, Daniel, Julio*, a criminal lawyer, and Elisa*, a psychologist became a regular presence in Martha’s life. Elisa helped Martha process her feelings of guilt and fear. Daniel and Julio worked on gathering evidence and presenting it to the courts.
Throughout the process of giving testimony, AJS’s team did everything to keep Martha safe. They know through experience that powerful or well-connected individuals seek revenge against people who dare to speak out against them, and that the men who killed Martha’s nephew could have informants in her neighborhood.
They know that protecting a witness’ identity is the same as protecting her life.
On the day of the trial, AJS staff pick Martha up for court in an unmarked car, where she dons the dark robes: a hood over her head, gloves over her hands, slippers covering her sandals and red-painted toenails.
They drive her to court where she steps into a wooden box, and is wheeled into the courtroom – this way no one can recognize her height or her gait. She lifts her hood for a few seconds so only the judge can see and identify her, then speaks through a special microphone that changes and distorts her voice. Her voice shakes at first, audible even through the distortion, but as she talks she becomes more confident. She remembers Daniel and Julio offering to pray for her during their drive to the court, the tight squeeze of Elisa’s hand as she stepped out of the car.
On the day of the trial, Martha stands in front of the court knowing that she isn’t alone. She finishes her testimony in a full, clear voice – she knows the evidence in the case is strong, that her eyewitness testimony is powerful, that her lawyers is smart and well-prepared.
Justice can win, she dares to believe. For the first time in a long time, she feels a flutter of hope.
*Names and some identifying details about this case have been changed.
For hundreds of people like Martha, AJS is proving that the Honduran justice system can work. But this life-changing intervention is limited by a small office that has neither the space nor the privacy to accommodate beneficiaries with needs like Martha’s.
To reach the upper room where she met with AJS staff, Martha had to climb 47 stairs, passing by the offices of dozens of staff members and a second meeting room where government officials from Honduras’ government ministries and courts regularly meet with AJS staff.
During the meeting, other AJS projects knocked on the door to see if the room – the only space in the office that can accommodate more than 15 people – was available. Each time, Martha jumped.
We dream about a building that could keep Martha private and safe.
Our new office will include separate entrances for projects working with people whose identities could put them in danger. While some AJS staff meet with victims and witnesses of violence in one wing, other staff could help train public attorneys in another, without the two groups ever seeing each other.
Our new office will also incorporate state-of-the-art security features including access cards and monitoring cameras that will keep AJS staff and beneficiaries safe.
This building will be an active part in AJS’s role to be a catalyst for justice and for hope in Honduras, just as they were a catalyst in Martha’s case.
Thanks to Martha’s trust in them, the AJS team was able to help convict two men of murdering her nephew. These men will be sentenced to 20-30 years in prison, keeping them from killing anyone else in her community.
As case after case in her neighborhood end in conviction, Martha’s fragile hope will take root somewhere inside her. She will begin to believe that a different Honduras is possible. She will know that she herself has been part of that transformation.