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For Reporting The Truth, A Hit Man Told Her He Could Have Her Killed For $25

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Photo: Courtesy of Hector Gomez.
Ramirez covers crime and human rights violations in San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities in the world. The cameraman next to her is from another channel that also covered the accident.
In July 2014, Lourdes Ramirez and her television crew had arrived at the public hospital in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras. Outside, gang members were charging patients' families a bribe to visit their relatives. The hospital's security guards, claiming they had not been paid in months, stood by, enforcing the bribes. Inside, the story was even worse: medicine stolen and sold on the black market, criminals hastening the deaths of patients so they could charge families a commission on their coffins.

But Ramirez and her team found the most gruesome case in the emergency room. A man who had been tortured by the gangs lay in a bed with a wound so infected "there were literally worms coming out of his neck," Ramirez said. The camera rolled, and that night, Hondurans across the country could see the painful truth: Drug gangs had taken over the public hospital, and the police and military were doing nothing to stop it. Two days later, the man in the emergency room was dead.

For that story, and many others that she reported in the country that has become the murder capital of the world, Ramirez — who was awarded the International Women's Media Foundation Courage In Journalism Award last fall — received serious death threats, both from gangs and the security forces. She shared her powerful and inspiring story with Refinery29 while in New York to accept the award.

There were women that weren’t even able to put on a bra because their whole skeleton was destroyed by the repetitive movements [in the sweatshops].

Lourdes Ramirez, Investigative Journalist
You said you have received death threats for your work. Why?
"The first threat that I received was in 2005 when I did a radio campaign with women’s stories about the situation inside the maquilas [sweatshops that make clothing to be exported to the U.S. and other countries]. There were women who had spine injuries, that weren’t even able to put on a bra because their whole skeleton was destroyed by the repetitive movements.

"The women were saying that they were working under a lot of stress, that they had to produce more than 500 pieces of clothes a day, that they didn’t have time to go to the bathroom, and that they had urinary infections. They had all kinds of injuries, these young women, after six months working in a maquila.

"They’re earning 6,400 lempiras, which is around $300 U.S. dollars per month. They have a system where they work 12 hours a day for four days, and then they [are supposed to] rest another four days. But instead, they’re told that they have to deliver the order, so they work more. Our radio campaign talked about this stress and these health problems.

"Then a man started following me everywhere. But I didn’t know who he was. And one day he approached me. He asked if I worked for that organization, I told him that I did. He said that I should take down those radio announcements because for 500 lempiras, he could have me killed. That was about $25.

"I didn’t know who he was, or why he was telling me that, until the next day, when I saw him talking with a very elegant man. I asked someone else who he was talking with. They told me that it was a businessman, and gave me his name. He was the security boss of a maquila. I felt threatened then, and realized that a car had been following me for several days."
What made you flee Honduras after reporting about the corruption and violence at the hospital?
"[After the patient we filmed died] all of the media came to the hospital, they were on all of the floors. The military intervened in the hospital and the repression began against the journalists. They didn't let us in, and some of the military pushed us; others pushed our vehicles.

"From then on, I got some pictures sent to my phone: a photo of me inside of a red car. Photos that looked dark, confusing. So I called the Colonel [a highly-placed source in the Honduran security forces]. There was a conglomerate of authorities, and he was the boss. So I told him that I had gotten some photos and that I didn’t know what they were. People had also called the TV channel to ask what time we journalists were returning, and there were two armed men hanging around the TV station.

"The Colonel told me, 'Oh, everything that is happening is because of the hospital. Because no one else was able to do what you did in Honduras. The thing at the hospital had been going on for so many years, and you achieved that with the media. And from what I heard, you haven’t gotten a prize, so I’m going to give one to you.'
"The Colonel tells me not to worry, that he will send me security guards... They told me that my phone was being tapped, and they told me that someone was following me and that those pictures had been taken of me at a mall. After I gave them the photos, they started investigating. And they showed me the picture of a guy, who supposedly is a sicario [assassin] who has been following me. The Colonel tells me that it’s serious, that I should be careful. I had a trip to the U.S. the following week because my visa was about to expire. So then I made the decision to go away.

"I left the country, scared and confused. I didn’t know what was happening... The next day, my nephew who is a lawyer goes to talk to the Colonel and asks him if I have enemies, and whether those photos were taken by an enemy, or if they want to torture me. The Colonel changed his version of the story five times. He said [first] that it is personal, that it has nothing to do with my journalistic work, and that they had to investigate what problems I had and with whom. Then he said that no, it doesn’t have to do with me, that they had confused me with someone else. Then he said that no journalists from our TV channel are under threat, and that I’m not either.

"That’s when I realized, when the Colonel started changing the versions, that he was the one that had sent for everything. Because when there was so much repression in the hospital, I denounced it on social media. I would send it over Twitter, over everywhere else. And I told the Colonel then, 'Don’t make the mistake, Colonel, having the media on top of you, don’t make that mistake.' So he probably reacted that way because of that.'"
What is the situation like in Honduras currently?
"There are 20 murders daily, on average. It had come down a bit, but now it has increased again. Within those, four to five victims are women, sometimes entire families of women, including kids. There are a lot of 'femicides' now. There’s also impunity in 98% of the murder cases. There are assaults on the streets, kidnappings, and extortions.

"Not everything has to do with the maras [gangs]. The gangs told the government and the military this when they wanted to sign a peace treaty: 'You blame us for everything, but we don’t commit all the crimes.' And that is true. There’s a situation that I see…that the military is being given a lot of power, too much power.

"There is a tax fund for security forces in the billions that we are all paying into, especially the business people. This money is not being invested in prevention, but in giving the military more power and equipment. And that is very dangerous because there is a lot of repression by the military and police."
On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military overthrew the country's democratically elected president, putting him on a plane to Costa Rica. A wave of repression followed the coup d’état, and activists, LGBTQ people, and journalists were targeted. What was the time after the coup d’état like for you?
"There was a lot of repression, there was a lot of tear gas, tanks; the army was very repressive of media. Journalistic equipment was destroyed, there were kidnappings of journalists who were threatened, intimidated, put into military or police cars.

"Things got more difficult. The majority of journalists that were killed were killed starting from 2009; 55 journalists in total have been killed since 2003, but more than 45 of those were killed between 2009 and 2015."
Why did you choose to go back to Honduras, in spite of the danger you face?
"When I got to the U.S., the Committee to Protect Journalists told me that I could ask for asylum, and that they could help me. And I said no, because I can’t continue doing journalism in Honduras if I ask for asylum, and I can’t be with my family. I knew that for me, it would be frustrating not to be able to continue doing journalism."

What is your advice for other young women who want to use journalism for social justice?
"We women have to unite, without selfishness, without wanting to show off. We have to unite, so our work is more visible to empower women, to give women autonomy. We can't be scared of denouncing persecution."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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