Honduran journalist Lourdes Ramírez is not afraid to put her life on the line for the sake of the country and the profession that she loves and on more than one occasion she has paid a heavy price for her relentless pursuit of truth.
In July 2014, Ramírez sent her team of KTV reporters to the Mario Catarino Rivas Hospital in San Pedro Sula, after patients’ family members reported that an armed gang was forcing them to pay an extortion fee to be allowed to see their ailing relatives.
What KTV’s reporters found left them speechless. Gang members had ransacked the hospital’s medicine supplies and sold them on the black market and they were hastening the death of terminally ill patients in order to turn the dead over to funeral parlors and demand a “commission fee” for each coffin.
The hospital’s security guards, who complained that their wages hadn’t been paid for the past six months, were cooperating with the gang, forbidding entry to anyone who refused to pay the extortion fee.
Ramírez’s TV crew filmed images of a particularly horrific case that embodied the suffering and desperation of the hospital’s patients and their relatives. Two weeks earlier the patient had been found lying on the roadside after gang members tortured him with electric shocks. The hospital was in such a state of disarray that no one tended to his wounds, fed him, or changed his bed. He was simply abandoned. He died just before Ramírez’s news story aired.
In the wake of the scandal, President Juan Orlando Hernández sent in the military police to take control of the hospital and stamp out corruption. An official investigation into Cabrera’s death was launched. And two men began to loiter near the small KTV news studio where Ramírez worked.
Ramírez and her family members were followed and photographed. Her cellphone became flooded with anonymous threats. She heard from a contact that she was being threatened because of the hospital scandal.
Ramírez, who had already requested time off to visit relatives in the U.S., decided to change the date of her flight and leave the country immediately. She recalls that when she left, her news director had been empathetic and supportive.
However, for reasons that can only be explained as fear of reprisals, Ramírez says that he later claimed that KTV reporters were never threatened. Ramírez was fired for unauthorized absence.
During her time in the U.S., Ramírez could have applied for asylum. Instead, she chose to go back to her country and is even more determined to continue exposing corruption and wrongdoing.
“I think that quitting journalism after a 30-year-long career would be very frustrating for me,” said Ramírez. “It would make me feel that I’ve let my family down, that I’ve let my country down, and I still believe in a new vision for journalism, not only in Honduras but also across Latin America.”
The threats that forced Ramírez to temporarily flee Honduras were not the first she experienced while reporting. In 2005, after she investigated human rights violations against female garment factory workers, she was followed by a man who told her he would pay a hit man $25 to kill her if she didn’t quit her investigation.
Six years later, while she was working on a corruption investigation, Ramírez received an anonymous call from a man who claimed he had a news tip. After Ramírez agreed to meet him, she was bundled into a vehicle by two men wearing hoods who warned her she would be killed, as well as her editor, if they continued to pursue their story.
In 2014, Ramírez was chosen to participate in the Reporting Initiative for the Americas, a project sponsored by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and she led a team of reporters that produced a groundbreaking multi-media investigation into femicide in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The news report, “Four myths about the violent killing of women in the Northern Triangle,” won the National Communication Prize for Gender Equality and Against Gender-Based Violence awarded by Oxfam Honduras.
Riddled with gangs and drug trafficking, Honduras is the most violent country in the world, with a murder rate of 90.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to U.N reports. Only 2 percent of crimes are solved, and police corruption is widespread. Since the coup in 2009, violence has become even more entrenched.
“I want to continue working as a journalist for as long as I live, despite the risks I have taken and despite the fact that sometimes I feel alone in my desire to bring change to my country, but I’m determined to continue fighting till the end because this I love this job and I think it’s the most beautiful job in the world,” said Ramírez.
Ramírez is the first IWMF in Journalism Award winner from Honduras and the second from Central America, following Marielos Monzón, from Guatemala, in 2003.
by Louisa Reynolds
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 2015