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  Number 251 | Junio 2002
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Honduras

Journalist, Legislator, Lawyer… And Sexual Abuser

The case of David Romero Ellner, accused by his own daughter of sexual abuse, has shaken Honduran society, motivating many other women to wake up to this abuse of power and denounce it.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

"Successful men" stand out in the circles of power in Honduras just as they do in all other Latin American societies. These are the men of politics, of business and of religion that everyone looks up to.

Their untarnished public life, standard of excellence and bearing—their way of dressing and relating to others—make people somehow believe that they are the bearers of truth. Without exposing an iota of fragility, they appear to be above good and evil. Over the centuries, such pillars of society have forged an image of honorability that they can trade on. This honor and their success elevate these champions of public life into judges of all society, issuing verdicts on what is good and bad, who is a good citizen and who should be excluded from their particular paradise.

Pillars of society can be frauds

Still timidly but with increasing frequency, however, facts, cases and testimonies by mainly female victims of insatiable machismo and society’s trivializing of sex and sexual relations are coming to light in which such "successful men" weigh in heavily among the accused. It might be a renowned politician, a top government official, a high-flying professional, even a man of the cloth. Their victims, frequently adolescent women, are very often defenseless in the face of a victimizer who exercises authority over them or presents himself as an unquestionable object of respect.

Each time a new case is revealed, the suspicion grows that many more pillars of society are involved than one could have imagined even a short time ago. The sexual abuse and mistreatment being denounced appears linked to the uncontrolled exercise of power, a field in which men tend to hold all the cards. Money frequently opens or closes doors to get them what they want, no questions asked. Many abuse cases remain unmentioned within the silence that a patriarchal society and culture imposes on the victims.

Society has traditionally taught that sex is a taboo, something dirty and sinful. This conception inherent in society makes one’s personal sexual behavior invisible, non-existent, and thus untouchable, silenceable. And the more sexual themes are silenced within the family and society, the more this silence opens the way to the subterranean labyrinth of the perversion of sex, fortifying the impunity of those with the money and the power in both their family and society.

The bottom line is a society trapped in the dynamics of power, sex and money, dominated by the impunity of those who control all three with two-faced morality. Untarnished public lives can thus hide and legitimize private lives full of abuse and violence. In public and social life men praise and even venerate their mother while abusing any other women. In fact, they even abuse their mother in their inability to see her as a full human being and not just in her stereotype role as their succor.

Romero Ellner’s irresistible rise…

It’s not every day that the lid comes off a case like the one shaking Honduras right now, in which the abuser and rapist is a well known journalist, a far-right politician who started out on the far left and a lawyer to boot. In fact, this prestigious "man of success" committed incest.

As a journalist, David Romero Ellner was a close confidant of Honduran President Carlos Roberto Flores, accompanying him on strategically important international trips and meetings. Previously, in the early nineties, he had been part of the inner circle surrounding Flores’ predecessor, President Rafael Leonardo Callejas. And before that, in the seventies and early eighties, Ellner had been a visible activist on the Honduran Left.

A few months ago, turning 46, David Romero Ellner could not complain about his life. He was a success story, a man who could say and do whatever he wanted. As a journalist and lawyer he had established good relations with the most powerful groups in the country. His professional titles took him so far that he had finally made it as a professional politician in the bipartisan Honduran world, the best category to which a successful person can aspire in this country. Once there, he began to win elected posts: first, Municipal Council member in the capital, and then alternate legislative representative for the Liberal Party in the last elections.
His three professions—journalist, lawyer and politician—brought him abundant economic recompense. Going from good to better, he made the Honduran list of the rich and famous. His success and prestige allowed him a life of absolute impunity as a conspicuous member of the "untouchable" set. Nothing and no one could disturb his peace and his honor, although he could upset the peace and honor of anyone he chose, however and whenever he wanted. He heaped praise or abuse on individuals and groups with total abandon on the news commentary program he shared with another successful journalist-politician, Eduardo Maldonado, broadcast daily on one of the most popular radio chains.

…and spectacular fall

At the end of February, rumors began to circulate among various groups in the capital that David Romero Ellner had raped his daughter at a family birthday party held for him on February 16. Two months later he vanished from public life to avoid being judged for the sexual abuse and rape of Dalia Yamileth Romero, his biological daughter, after she filed charges against him with the Public Prosecutor’s Office with support from the Center for Women’s Rights (CDM).

Romero Ellner’s luck had crumbled with one blow to his least expected and surely most neglected flank: his own family. On February 16, he culminated a long history of abuse by sexually penetrating his daughter.

The ongoing, systematic aggression had begun when she was just 10 and went on for 13 years, while David Romero Ellner was accumulating the trophies that raised him to the status of a man of success. In 1989, the year the sexual abuse began, he was busily cementing his relationship with the Callejas group, which opened the door for his membership in the select club of founders of the newspaper El periódico, at the service of President Callejas.
While continuing to abuse his daughter, Ellner was consolidating his reputation as a renowned journalist and strengthening his ties to a succession of Armed Forces chiefs—first Discua Elvir and then Hung Pacheco. And as Honduras’ political affairs traditionally involve neither ethics nor loyalties, Romero Ellner went from the ring of journalists at the service of Callejas’ Nationalists to "official" journalist of Flores Facussé’s Liberal Group, faithful servant of economic groups linked to the Rosenthals, the Facussés and other important families. He had thus covered all the important flanks: military, political and economic. Romero Ellner’s prestige grew, carrying him into the most select circles of Honduran political and economic society, while at the same time he was shredding his own daughter’s dignity.

Torments of the Left,
Sweetness of the Right

The consensus of the social gossip in the capital is that Romero’s decomposition was set in motion when he decided to combine a career in journalism with that of law. Parlaying that combo quickly gained him entry into the world of the country’s most corrupt sector.
Before getting his law degree and long before becoming a journalist, this man was identified with the country’s radical Left. A member of the Communist Youth in the seventies, he represented Honduras more than once in world gatherings called by the Soviet Union. When the conflicts sharpened within the Honduran Left, Romero Ellner sided with the most radical sector. He joined Tomás Nativí and Fidel Martínez—both of whom were later disappeared on orders from Alvarez Martínez, the army’s notoriously brutal chief at the time—in founding the People’s Revolutionary Union (URP), political arm of the clandestine armed Cinchoneros organization. Captured and tortured together with Nativí, Romero Ellner bears the scar of a bullet wound to his leg while being tortured. This experience gave him that rare cachet of a man of success who can speak of both the torments of the Left and the sweetness of the Right with the propriety that only a militant experience in both bands gives. And, in fact, he dedicated himself to each in turn with the same fanatic intensity.

"I never understood
why he was touching me"

According to his daughter’s testimony, Romero Ellner’s violence began well before he started sexually abusing her body. "Ever since I was little, before the direct sexual harm began, I was very damaged by his psychological and physical violence against my mother. He used me to pressure her, he kept hold of me, he made me suffer."
Yamileth’s decision to break the 13-year silence has been the most difficult one of her life. "From an early age I’ve identified him as a powerful person, because of his influence, his violence, his firearm, his friends and his ability to dominate us. His domineering power meant that my relationship with him was one of fear. He always frightened me. I never understood why he was touching me. I never wanted it, but I put up with it out of fear, out of subjection, until it became intolerable. When he penetrated me, my whole life collapsed around me. I decided to leave. I was frightened, but I left, because I felt like I was being stalked, pursued; I felt terrible."
According to his daughter’s testimony, David Romero Ellner played at being an extremely affectionate father, but flew into a rage when he was in a bad mood or had too much to drink. But he was free to do what he wanted because he was the powerful one of the house. "I wanted to say something so many times, but I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me, because the man who had the last word and made the decisions was the same person who was treating me so badly. He insulted me and physically abused me, often hitting me in the face with his closed fist."

"I’m not the only one;
this happens a lot"

Yamileth was 17 when she seriously considered speaking out for the first time. She told her father she was going to denounce him, but he was sure of both himself and his daughter’s submission. "He got furious and ran me out of the house, but I didn’t have the courage to make the denunciation."
Yamileth is aware that her decision to speak up is just the beginning of a difficult process to get her testimony believed in a society in which men, particularly successful men like her father, control what is truth. "It’s very hard to live without being able to speak. I know that there are very difficult moments ahead because society blames women, but I also know I’m not alone. This happens more often than we see at a public level, but not all of us have the courage to speak up, to break the silence and face the consequences. I hope God will give me the courage to deal with it, but I don’t expect everyone to be on my side."
Yamileth took the first step, and says she will not stop until she recovers her dignity. She’s doing it for herself and for the thousands of women who remain silent. She says she’s not looking for vengeance. "I only want justice. I’ll continue pursuing my case and won’t back off, even though there are forces that are trying to make me think of the sacrifice and the additional feelings that public treatment of this case will bring up. They tell me to keep quiet, but I’ll keep going, with faith, until I get results, until I feel totally free of the abuse…and the abuser."

Will impunity continue
protecting him?

Both public and hidden forces have mobilized to prevent Yamileth from pursuing her goal, among them the men of success who surrounded David Romero Ellner. Many men have begun to back him because their own protection depends on the failure to condemn him. Some are looking to minimize the facts and others to ridicule the victim, or offend her: "If she let him do it, it’s because she liked it."
His journalistic colleagues are using their radio programs to demonstrate their solidarity with the "persecuted journalist" and, even more importantly, are muzzling the information, filtering it, silencing it, distorting it. Right-wing colleagues contradictorily use media space to argue that the case should be treated exclusively in the courts and not in the media since it is, they say, a "private matter." They report that many legislators have decided to aid their colleague economically, according to some to get him out of the country and to others to keep him safe inside it. No one knows this alleged criminal’s whereabouts, except surely his successful friends, those pillars of the legal and journalistic professions. "I’m afraid," Yamileth admits. "I know that many powerful people support my father. I’m afraid because many cases that have been made public ended up forgotten, or those who suffered the abuses ended up being ridiculed, and there are many cases in which the perpetrator went unpunished."

"The worst part was
hiding it for so long"

Yamileth was fortunate enough to have an unconditional ally who also experienced her father’s abuses and violence first-hand: her own mother, who separated from him a number of years before, but suffered for her daughter’s fate. Romero Ellner had remarried and Yamileth asked her stepmother for help, but she refused and defends her husband in public, accusing Yamileth of being part of a campaign to discredit him politically. Her mother supports her, because she knows both her daughter and her former husband, and because both she and her daughter have been his victims.

"My mother’s with me. She’s following the case and calls me to talk about how it’s going. My brothers and sisters also support me, but we prefer not to bring it up during family conversations because I know it makes us all suffer."
Yamileth’s decision has been very costly. Friends who used to spend a lot of time with her are now silently pulling back, but Yamileth believes that speaking out has achieved its first victory. "I think my silence affected me more than this will from here on out. Everything to come has to be an improvement and that will have a positive effect on me. It’s not like when I kept quiet for so long, when everything stayed locked up inside, hidden, silent, suffering. I also know that my real friendships will be revealed in this new time. The people who truly love me won’t turn their back because of something we’ve all been exposed to, something that could happen to anyone in my neighborhood. Some people will reject me, as always happens. Some will believe me and some won’t; some will take my side and some will be against me."

Stubbornness, support
and a lot of solidarity

It is said that outgoing President Carlos Flores Facussé gave his successor, President-elect Ricardo Maduro, a list of journalists whose support was virtually indispensable to being able to govern. David Romero Ellner was reportedly among those mentioned.
What is not just hearsay is that Romero Ellner extolled mercenary journalism on his program like a paid ad, and attacked and ridiculed journalists who refused to place themselves at the service of the interests of either the government or the country’s economic power groups.

When his daughter’s accusation began to circulate at the end of February, Romero’s legislative and journalist friends reportedly pressured the Public Ministry to ignore it. They are even said to have sought the President’s good offices to get the case cast aside. Had it not been for Yamileth’s stubborn decisiveness, support from organizations working to defend women and solidarity from many individuals and groups, she would undoubtedly have emerged from the ordeal more battered than before and her father would have shored up his image as a successful figure who had been "slandered."

Yamileth has made a breakthrough

Yamileth has made a breakthrough in the struggle of women against violence and of society against the impunity of successful men. But it is still a small breach in an enormous wall and opening it fully will be a long and hard endeavor.

Yamileth is a privileged woman, because she had access to an academic education and a social environment that strengthened her and gave her the capacity to make her accusation. The vast majority of women in Honduras who have also been sexually abused, even raped in their homes, have none of these opportunities.

envío had direct access to the testimony of one of the tens of thousands of poor rural women who have remained silent all their life, but are today beginning to emerge from their shell. Yamileth’s decision has really helped raise the awareness of humble women who want to break their silence.

Carmen was abused
since childhood

We’re going to call her Carmen. She was still in her mother’s womb when her father left home, abandoning not only his pregnant partner but also their one-year-old son. In order to survive in Honduras’ machista countryside, Vilma, Carmen’s mother, could not remain single. So she married an older man, a widower and father of 10 boys, becoming the mother of 12 overnight. From an early age, Carmen, the only girl, was burdened with many of the household chores.
As long as she can remember, she felt scorn, humiliation and abuse heaped on her by her stepbrothers and stepfather. Carmen relates that when she was 10, she began to dream of going to school, but the dream was unrealizable. By then, her mother, perhaps desperate to see her daughter "protected" the same way she was, had already set it up for her to marry one of her stepbrothers.
The young man, 10 years older than Carmen, began to fondle her, as did her stepfather, while occasionally also buying her candy, cookies and headscarves. Carmen knew she could not tell her mother because it was a given that men are always right. In March 1975, when she was 12, they announced that Ceferino was officially her boyfriend.
She didn’t even understand what they were talking about. The only thing she was perfectly clear about was that a few days later Ceferino obliged her to have sex with him, arguing that he was now her official "fiancé."
Once he had deflowered her, he told her that she could never belong to anyone else. "You’re my property," Ceferino told her. "I’ve had you now and from here on out nobody else can touch you."

"They taught me to fear
God and my husband"

"In September 1976, they had me married to him in the Catholic Church, without me knowing what it was all about. They filled me with the fear of God and of my husband, as if I’d stopped having any rights over my life. At 13, I became the property of a man who never loved me. I only remember that I was crying when they took me to the church."
Within a few years, Carmen had already given birth to her first three children. As time went on, she began to participate in church activities because she liked the education she was receiving as a catechist. Most of all, she liked feeling that they took her seriously.

"Just after I had my fourth child I began to feel that my whole history was churning around inside of me. I knew I was subjected to a man who got drunk all the time and used me for his sexual needs, and then would beat me or throw me out of the bed. I knew this wasn’t what I wanted, that life didn’t have to be like that. But getting married in the church weighed on my conscience. If I got married, I would wonder, does that mean God wants me to live in submission? Does God accept a wedding I was never conscious of?" Carmen went over and over these thoughts and feelings during her long sleepless nights.

"It was the saddest day of my life"

Carmen’s awareness continued growing, as did Ceferino’s aggressions. He kept an eye on her constantly. "You’re not the same since you started going to those church classes," he would shout, enmeshed in his vices and his macho rages.
Although extortion and threats had been the daily bread in Ceferino’s dominating relationship with Carmen, they grew even stronger as she took more and more tiny steps toward developing her own awareness. "If you leave me some day," he would threaten, "it’ll be the last day of your life, because I’ll kill you, even if I have to kill myself afterward." And with each return from a church meeting, Carmen was insulted as a traitor and an easy woman, until in the last three years the physical aggression began to take on high-risk proportions.
One evening, when she returned home from one of her meetings, Ceferino was waiting for her with a machete, his eyes glazed over by alcohol and jealousy. In front of their children, he began to make swipes at Carmen with the machete, one of which caught her right foot. "That was the saddest day of my life, because I fled like a criminal, leaving my little boys and girls behind. I flew out into the street, leaving the house that had cost me so much to build because in addition to the household chores I was working in church social activities, and with that money I was building cement walls for the house."

"Please let my wedding
have been a bad dream"

With tears streaming from her eyes, Carmen gets up from her chair, crosses to the window and, staring into infinity, concludes: "Remembering all this is extremely painful. But I lived through it and I’m still alive. Now let me tell you a crazy thing I did a few months ago. I wanted to believe that all of my childhood, particularly my wedding, had been a bad dream. So I went back to the town I left so long ago. I wanted to find the wedding registry in the hope of learning that no marriage was recorded, that it had all been a sad fantasy. So I went and looked up my name. And there it was, written in the book, my name right alongside the name of that man who never loved me. And because of him, I’ve never had the opportunity to love or feel loved by a man. There it all was in the book, proof of the life stolen from me."
At this point, Carmen turned suddenly toward me, as if seeking the answer to a question she has borne imprisoned in her heart for nearly three decades: "Do you believe that I, Carmen Miranda, am registered in God’s records as a married woman? Do you believe that if God is love he could accept that I’m married? No, sir, I’m very sorry, I don’t know what the bishops and the priests are going to say, but let me tell you before God: I’m not married, even if it is written in the book of the church. I’m not married because I didn’t know what I was doing, and above all because I have never loved or been loved. And if matrimony is Christian, there has to be a place in it for love and pity. And I never had that. On the contrary, that contract in the church has prevented me from discovering the true love that can be had with a man with whom one joins together in love and freedom."

The struggle against
immunity-impunity

The National Congress has already debated the judicial request to strip David Romero Ellner and 13 other legislators of their parliamentary immunity so they can stand trial for the common crimes they are accused of. After the plenary debate, a commission was appointed to study the cases and present its findings. And, with that, the Congress went on a three-week recess.
The file is still open and the debate is still going on. Romero Ellner’s case has rekindled public awareness of the issue of immunity transformed into impunity. There is incisive pressure from diverse sectors to legally limit parliamentary immunity to issues strictly related to legislative functions so it cannot be used as a protective shield against any common crime a parliamentarian commits, sexual crimes included.
Various interests are fighting it out in this battle, including those seeking to weaken the legislators who currently control power in the Congress and the country as a whole, especially those from the "dark side" headed by former President Callejas. This group’s immunity-impunity is defended by the corrupt "macho" circle of Liberals such as former President Suazo Córdova, Liberal bench chief Roberto Micheletti and many others who exploit their immunity to sexually abuse girls and women as much as to enrich themselves. They use their positions of power to extort favors and to "reward" those favors with a fleeting post in public office.

Indignant in the struggle for dignity

The file is still open and the debate is still going on. Meanwhile, Yamileth and this woman we have called Carmen have already opened two cracks of hope in the patriarchal structure by fighting for their dignity from their distinct social positions. In so doing, they are fighting for the dignity of all Honduran women, and even of men themselves. It now falls to those of us, men and women alike, who are indignant at abuse of power and sexual abuse to continue chipping away at these cracks.
We must channel our indignation into an active fight on behalf of the victims until we attain a country with shared dignity for all. The media that pride themselves on being alternative must become more belligerent about these themes. They must bolster the efforts to build a society in which "men of success" give way to men of flesh and blood who are able to love, recognize their own frailties and grow in equity with women. The goal is a society in which the Yamileths from the urban middle-class sectors and the Carmens from the rural areas decide to speak out so they can leave their pain behind and live healthy and happy lives.

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