SANTA BARBARA, Honduras (AP) — Maria Jose Alvarado expected some difficult questions about her country at the Miss World pageant in London, so the 19-year-old beauty queen enlisted a teacher to help her prepare.
They reviewed the history of Honduras, including the military-backed coup in 2009 that sent the president into exile. They went through the daily newspapers to discuss politics and the gang and drug violence that makes this small Central American republic one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
The odds of winning the Miss World crown were long, Alvarado knew, but she practiced her English in the weeks ahead of the pageant, just in case she needed an acceptance speech, said Jose Eudaldo Diaz, the philosophy professor who was coaching her.
"She knew that the questions would be about the insecurity and violence because that is what the world knows about Honduras," Diaz said. "Her goal was to explain that she wanted to contribute to a Honduras in which children could walk the streets without fear of being murdered."
No one ever got to hear Alvarado's speech, and she didn't get to the pageant. She was shot to death along with a sister, their bodies discarded on a riverbank. They were laid to rest in a rain-soaked cemetery Thursday.
The senseless murder of Miss Honduras along with the older sister, Sofia, is both a family tragedy and a national outrage in a country that had seemed to be sleepwalking through a homicidal bloodbath. While many of the daily dead are gangsters, drug traffickers and police officers, many others are taxi drivers, journalists, abused women and other nameless innocents caught in the line of fire.
Alvarado would have fallen into the last group were it not for the fact she was unusually beautiful, and rose from humble roots in the hinterlands to represent Honduras on a world stage.
"If she had been any other girl, if she hadn't been Miss Honduras, this would have been one more crime amid the impunity of Honduras," said Jose Luis Mejia, director of the Technological University campus in Santa Barbara, where Alvarado studied. "They would have said what they always do: that this was the settling of accounts between drug traffickers, and they wouldn't even have bothered to investigate."
Most South American cocaine headed for the United States passes through Honduras, and Santa Barbara is on a main corridor from the brutal city of San Pedro Sula to the Guatemalan border. Officially, the killing of Miss Honduras and her 23-year-old sister isn't related to drug trafficking. Police say Sofia's suitor, Plutarco Ruiz, confessed to shooting the sisters in a jealous rage after she danced with another man at his birthday party. He killed Sofia first and then shot Maria Jose twice in the back as she tried to flee.
But to Alvarado's friends and family, the killings are the result of a traditional machismo made worse by the wealth and muscle of drug traffickers.
"This region is imbued with narco culture represented by the image of a man who moves in a big car, drinks, takes drugs, walks around armed and is bad," Mejia said. "The culture of violence and death."
Santa Barbara is a Spanish colonial town of one-story houses with wood posts holding up clay-tiled roofs. Its parents are, for the most part, conservative Roman Catholics who walk their daughters to and from high school in the belief that unaccompanied young women should not be on the streets. Smoking and drinking in public are scorned, if not prohibited, and beauty pageants in this region don't allow contestants in bikinis.
The town is surrounded by fog-shrouded mountains and coffee farms, its dirt streets muddied by days of heavy rain. A house once owned by 19th century Honduran President Luis Bogran serves as the private high school and university where Alvarado was enrolled and planned to study international relations. In a covered patio, her friends held a candlelight vigil with a slideshow of pictures from Alvarado's pageant and modeling career.
Nusly Casana, a classmate of Alvarado's since kindergarten, described what a tough town Santa Barbara is for women.
"They tell you: 'Don't' dress like that. Don't go out. What are you doing, where are you going? Who are you going with, what will people say?" Casana said.
"A man is free, a woman not; a man may choose and a woman not. And along with this is the violence that begins at home from childhood and continues throughout life. ... To call the murder of a woman by a man a crime of passion, to talk of jealousy, is to avoid the daily reality of violence against women," she said.
Casana recalled how she and Alvarado used to carry their Barbie dolls to school in their book bags. Alvarado loved beauty and fashion and talked of wanting to grow up to be like Barbie.
The youngest of three sisters, Alvarado began competing in pageants at age 13. She won Miss Northwest Honduras, Miss Teen Honduras and, finally, Miss Honduras, the stepping stone to the Miss World pageant.
After each competition, she would come back to Santa Barbara and share the details of her experiences with friends, who described her as generous and innocent to the point of naivete. She still wore braces on her lower teeth.
"Her successes were our successes," said Ludin Reyes, another schoolmate. "We were friends and fans."
While Alvarado pursued her dream, and her oldest sister married and moved away, Sofia was not so lucky, friends and officials said. She was a teacher until the school where she worked closed, and in love with a married man who left his wife to be with her, but was murdered in October 2013.
Then Sofia took up with Ruiz, who confessed to killing the sisters. Ruiz was known about town as a man to be feared from a family deeply involved in drug trafficking, officials say. Although he had no police record, he was seen as someone who could offer protection or eliminate enemies.
"This is a drug trafficking corridor," said Lt. Col Ramon Castillo, an army officer in charge of security in Santa Barbara. "David Ruiz, Plutarco's brother was 'the bull' and when he was killed in February, Plutarco took his place. ... Plutarco is a violent person with a bad character and he solves everything with a pistol in his hand."
Casana said everyone warned Sofia that Ruiz was dangerous, but she wouldn't listen.
"The worst machismo is the one in the head of women who think that a drug trafficker is a powerful man who gives her what she doesn't have, protects her and makes her look good in a society that values money and power," Casana said.
It's a mystery to Alvarado's friends why she went with her sister to the rundown "spa," or riverfront restaurant, that was believed to be a place that Ruiz used to conduct illegal business. But Alvarado looked up to her big sister and, after baking a cake together, apparently wanted to join Sofia to celebrate Ruiz's birthday.
Ruiz had six security guards at the Nov. 13 party, Castillo said. According to police, Sofia and Ruiz got into a heated argument over her dancing with another man. He shot the two women and with the help of a friend buried them by the river, spreading lime to make the bodies decompose more quickly.
The next day, Ruiz told Alvarado's family the women had left the party with someone else, and he invited them for lunch. Later, he even went with them to file a missing persons report with police. But eventually investigators wrested a confession from Ruiz and, nearly a week after they disappeared, he led police to their bodies. Ruiz and three alleged accomplices were arrested.
Mayor Juan Alvarado says most of the town's 29,000 residents know who's who and what they do. He says it is widely believed police waited days to interrogate Ruiz to give him a chance to escape. But in a country where impunity prevails, he didn't run.
"He felt so immune that he didn't flee because he trusted they would never detain him," said the mayor, who is not related to the beauty queen's family.
Now that Ruiz is behind bars, the army should round up the rest of the drug traffickers in the area, Alvarado said. "As mayor, I receive threats for any little thing and I have to provide my own security so someone doesn't come put a bullet in me."
At her modest home on an unpaved road, Alvarado's distraught mother is left to grapple with the loss of her beauty queen daughter and the sister who led her to her death.
"Poor Sofia," said the mother, Teresa Munoz. "I forgive her because she was responsible for what they did to her sister, for the fact that Maria Jose died, too."