By Oscar Lopez
MEXICO CITY, July 16 (Openly) - The murder of three transgender women in Honduras this month has raised fears that a push for LGBT+ rights in the country has prompted a backlash.
Bessy Ferrera, a 40-year-old LGBT+ rights activist, was gunned down by unknown assailants early on July 8 in the capital Tegucigalpa.
Santi Carvajal, a trans TV show host, was shot on July 5 and died a day later in the northern city of Puerto Cortes, and a third trans woman was killed in the city of El Negrito on July 3, local media reported.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people encounter persistent abuse and harassment in Honduras where gay marriage is illegal and gangs rule lawless city neighborhoods.
Activists last year mounted legal challenges to bans on gay marriage and adoption, and developed a proposal with support from the human rights ministry for a law that would allow trans people to change their gender identity legally.
But the spate of murders has many fearing for their lives.
Trans people are being "kidnapped and killed with gunshots, kicks and punches," said Ferrera's sister, Rihanna Ferrera Sanchez, who ran as the first ever trans candidate for office in Honduras' 2017 elections.
"There has never been so many attacks of hate."
Twenty-one LGBT+ people have been murdered since January, according to Cattrachas, a local watchdog group, compared to 18 in the same period last year.
More than 300 gay and trans people have been murdered since 2009, according to the group funded by the Arcus Foundation.
Motives in the recent killings, and whether they were connected, remain unclear.
"People live in communities that are basically controlled by gangs, where the state has very little presence," said Mirte Postema, a researcher at Human Rights Watch's LGBT+ program.
"If then you are also part of a minority that is excluded and discriminated against and socially vilified ... when you are visibly part of that minority, then you run extra risks."
Some fear the attacks signal a backlash against a region-wide push for increased LGBT+ rights, which saw the Mexican Supreme Court rule in 2015 same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional.
"There is a kind of retaliation," said Carlos Eduardo Calix, a 35-year-old trans man and local activist from Choloma. "If (the gender identity law) is approved, then we'll be waiting to see who's next, who are they going to kill."
Marcela Laitano, director of public policy at the Honduran human rights ministry, said that machismo and conservative religious values in Honduras stymie LGBT+ rights progress.
"Society in general is not really ready (for these kinds of laws)," she said. "That's why we're aiming to educate, to sensitize."
Adding fuel to the fire, activists say, are anti-LGBT messages from influential Evangelical churches, which argue they are defending traditional family beliefs.
"We're not against lesbian groups - they're human beings, they're children of God," Mario Tomas Barahona, an Evangelical pastor told local newspaper La Tribuna in February.
"But that doesn't give them the right to come and ask to change laws on what a family is, laws that God established."
Rights groups have called on the government to respond to hate crimes with proper investigations and prosecutions.
But impunity rates in Honduras range between 95% and 98%, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the autonomous, member-funded human rights arm of the Organisation of American States.
Of 141 known killings of LGBT+ people between 2010 and 2014, only 9 resulted in convictions, it found.
A Public Prosecutor's office spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Following the recent killings, the human rights ministry began a research project with local rights groups to reduce anti-LGBT attacks.
Fearing for their safety, many LGBT+ people have fled Honduras and sought asylum in the U.S., with dozens of gay and trans migrants reaching the border in recent months.
That idea has crossed Calix' mind.
"I've thought about going to another country," he said. "But leaving (Honduras) means leaving the fight. If I go ... everything I've done, everything I've suffered would be in vain."
(Reporting by Oscar Lopez. Editing by Tom Finn)
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