Dad seeks justice for slain son in broken Honduras

Associated Press Modified: November 12, 2012 at 11:31 am •  Published: November 12, 2012
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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In a capital so dangerous that only the "walking dead" are said to venture out after dark, nothing could draw an obedient son from the safety of his parents' suburban home into the deserted night.

Nothing, that is, but a girl.

Ebed Yanes had friended her on Facebook. They had chatted and the studious 15-year-old was desperate to meet her. "My parents are still awake," he wrote her that Saturday night in May. "I'll shower while they go to bed and I'll get the keys to the motorcycle."

What do homicide statistics mean to a high school freshman in the grip of a young crush? A murder rate of 91 per 100,000 residents may make Honduras the most violent country in the world, but to Ebed those odds weren't grim enough to keep him home.

He crept downstairs, climbed onto his father's motorcycle and disappeared into the dark in search of the girl.

He never found her. "I don't know where you are," he texted. "I've been looking for 45 minutes but now I better get back before the soldiers catch me."

Police are so chronically outgunned by the criminals that the government had declared a state of emergency, allowing the army to patrol the streets. At this late hour, soldiers would have set up a roadblock. Ebed wasn't carrying the motorcycle registration, and he didn't want to be stopped, caught sneaking out of the house despite everything his father had taught him.

Honduras is a broken country. The political system is so weak that just three years ago the president was ousted in a coup carried out by the army and endorsed by the Supreme Court. Poverty is second only to Haiti's in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated three quarters of the cocaine flown from South America to the United States passes through this Central American country, the epicenter of the U.S. government's war on drug trafficking. The violence, according to the World Health Organization, is "epidemic."

Ebed knew he lived in a perilous country. But there was this lovely girl, and he so wanted to meet her. It was just one night. It was spring. He was young.

And by 1:30 a.m., he was dead, slumped over his father's motorcycle with a bullet to the back of his head.

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The Yanes family lives in a secure gated community on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. Every Sunday, before going to church, Ebed's job was to wash the car for his father, an organic food supplier.

But that Sunday, Wilfredo Yanes, 57, noticed that his car was still dirty. Ebed was not in bed, nor anywhere to be found. The motorcycle was missing.

Wilfredo's boy was playful, fond of girls, easily distracted, but he did not get into trouble. He never left the house alone, had never taken public transportation and didn't know his way about the city. Even when he went to Tae Kwon Do lessons, his older sister waited for him in the car for two hours, studying for her medical school classes.

It was hard to imagine what could have happened to him.

Wilfredo called the front gate of the complex. Yes, he was told, Ebed had left near midnight, on the motorcycle. No, he had not come back.

"We need to stay calm," Wilfredo told his wife, Berlin Caceres, 42, a university professor. They would look for him.

They went first to the Criminal Investigations Division, where they filed a missing person report. Next they went to the Juvenile Justice Division, then to the Children's Hospital. Maybe Ebed had had a motorcycle accident or had stayed overnight at a girl's house — though he'd never done anything like that before. Maybe he would come home, apologizing sheepishly.

He wasn't in jail or at the hospital. Finally, the Yaneses went to the police homicide division. The officers knew nothing about his son, they told him, but they did find a motorcycle next to the body of an unidentified young man. There had been a party in the neighborhood, they said, and somebody from the party must have killed him.

"We have the motorcycle here. Do you want to see it?"

The family walked across a parking lot and from a distance Wilfredo recognized his red motorcycle. He knew what it meant.

"Is it him?" asked his wife.

"Yes, it's him," Wilfredo said. She fainted and he barely had time to catch her before she hit the ground.

At the city morgue, Wilfredo told his wife and daughter to wait outside. Beyond the bare reception area the morgue was full, well past its 45-cadaver capacity, and nearly a dozen bodies lay on the floor, each in a white plastic bag. That's where Wilfredo found his only son, with a broken jaw that hadn't even seen its first shave, and an exit wound next to his mouth.

As shock set in, they handed him a bag of Ebed's belongings: his BlackBerry, a broken helmet, a set of house keys.

That night, at the wake, Wilfredo stood before the family and friends who'd gathered to pray and made a promise for Ebed, and for his country too. Although deeply religious, he did not believe in leaving this horror in God's hands. God rewarded you for what you did in this life, and he had to take action. "My son will not be just one more statistic," he vowed.

Wilfredo kept thinking about what the police had told him. His son was the victim of a street crime? He didn't believe it. On his way to the funeral, he took a detour to the police station a block away from where his son had been found. Two policemen on duty told him they had heard shots late Saturday, but they hadn't gone out to investigate. There were only the two of them, after all, and they were afraid.

He didn't blame the officers. Wilfredo didn't care for politics or criticize the government. But he was a practical man who knew police were unlikely to investigate, and without a case the government would never deliver justice. If he wanted answers, he'd have to get them himself. He climbed back into his car and drove to the block where Ebed had died.

One neighbor, a woman, said she'd heard loud gunshots, three rounds from a large caliber gun, but had been too scared to look outside. A young man who rented an apartment nearby did look, and he told Wilfredo he had seen six to eight masked soldiers in dark uniforms approaching a body. They poked it with their rifles, then picked up the empty bullet casings and went back to their vehicle parked at the entrance of the alleyway. It was an unusually big pickup truck, a four-by-four, with a double cabin.

After the sun came up, residents said, they went outside and gathered bullet casings that the soldiers had failed to find. They gave them to Wilfredo, who carried them to his son's funeral, feeling the weight of their significance in his pocket and in his gut: Good God, he thought, his son wasn't killed by party-goers. He likely was shot by the army.

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After the funeral, Wilfredo drove to National University, where his wife worked, to see Julieta Castellanos, the president of the university. She had also lost a son, shot by police at a roadblock last year, and had become a fearless critic of police impunity. Her advice: gather evidence and then contact the prosecutor's office.