On Nov. 13, Claudia Membreno Gomez was cooking dinner for her four children at home in Honduras. She had just spoken with her husband, Gustavo, in Alexandria, who was planning to meet her at Reagan National Airport the next day. Suddenly, three armed men burst through her door, pinioned the children at gunpoint and shot their mother dead in the kitchen.
The horrific slaying hardly made the news in Honduras, although local police officials confirmed the basic facts. With 7,100 killings last year alone, the Central American nation of 8 million has the highest per capita murder rate in the world: 82 per 100,000 people. Much of it has been fueled by criminal gangs that traffic in drugs, extortion and violent mayhem.
But in Alexandria, where many of her relatives live, Gomez’s faraway death has touched hundreds of people from varied walks of life. Some knew her from the private package service she ran out of the family’s apartment. They often brought gifts for friends and loved ones back in Honduras, which she stuffed into suitcases and delivered via monthly round-trip flights.
“This has ripped my heart out,” said Patricia Moore, a family friend and property manager who often visited the Gomez home. “I used to sit and watch Claudia pack Christmas presents for people to send back to their children or their parents. She and her family were loved by many, many people.”
At Del Ray Pizzeria, a friendly upscale bistro where Gomez’s brother Elder Caballero and his wife, Maria, work in the kitchen, everyone was stunned and saddened. Owner Eric Reid organized a fundraising dinner Nov. 26 and put out jars with labels that described the slaying as “a death in our family.” Many customers learned the news through a local food blog, and the dinner to benefit the Gomez family was sold out.
For some local residents, the killing opened a window onto a world they knew little about: a struggling Central American country where poverty, crime and natural disasters have driven thousands to the Washington area, and where corruption and military intervention have weakened a poor but once-stable democracy.
Jeff and Samantha Wetzel, former Peace Corps volunteers in Honduras, were among those who came to pay their respects. They said they had experienced firsthand the increasing danger and instability in the family’s homeland, which accelerated in 2009 after the military overthrew an elected president.
“The situation there was deteriorating so badly that our program was suspended and we never finished our service,” said Jeff Wetzel, 29. “Something like this helps you understand why so many young people there want to immigrate to the U.S.”
For Honduran emigrants in the area, the slaying was sad but not surprising. According to Gomez’s family, she had been receiving anonymous phone calls demanding money and threatening to harm her if she did not pay. They said that such extortion was now a common practice by violent gangs and that neighbors, drivers and small-business owners they know in Honduras received similar threats.
Like many Central American families, the Gomez-Membreno-Caballero clan members live in two worlds, with daily cellphone contact, informal business ties and a shifting mix of relatives moving between Alexandria and Progreso Yoro, a city on the northern Honduran coast that has boomed with the influx of U.S. dollars.
While Elder and Maria Caballero toiled in the pizza restaurant and sent home part of their wages, Claudia and Gustavo Gomez built a tidy business ferrying gifts by plane and by car to Honduras. They coordinated their trips so one parent could always be with the children. Claudia was an active Jehovah’s Witness in both places, and Gustavo often filled his cars with low-cost items from Goodwill to take home.
“Everything she did was for her children and her church. I keep asking myself why God would take her from us,” said Gustavo, 29, a stocky, taciturn man, as he slumped in the tiny kitchen of Elder and Maria’s apartment one recent afternoon.
Glumly, he scrolled through the images in his cellphone. There was one of them together, smiling and hugging on a beach. There was one his wife sent of herself, posing in a slinky dress to show him that she was losing weight. Finally, there was one from her funeral two weeks ago, with people holding umbrellas on a dark, drizzling day.
“See all the people who came, even in the rain?” he asked with a faint smile. Then his face crumpled and he covered it with his hands, sobbing. “I cannot accept that this happened,” he mumbled. “I will never get over it.”
According to analysts, the explosion of violent crime in Honduras was linked to its emergence as a transit hub for the drug trade and exacerbated by the 2009 coup. William Leogrande, a Latin America expert at American University, said the coup “weakened the rule of law” while gangs became better armed and more sophisticated. “The police lack training, and the gangs have just become too powerful for them,” he said.
Gomez’s relatives said that they had long ago lost confidence in Honduran law enforcement and that she never reported the threatening calls. They said that police told them her death was under investigation but that no one came back to inspect the house or interview neighbors.
Well before her slaying, Claudia and Gustavo had been growing worried about their children, ages 4, 6, 11 and 14. All four are U.S. citizens, and Gustavo was fixing up an apartment for the whole family in Alexandria, painting it in the cream and brick tones Claudia had chosen and rushing to finish before she arrived.
Instead, on Nov. 14, he ended up on a plane to Honduras, where his wife was dead and his children had just witnessed her slaying. He grabbed the two youngest, Luis and Emma, and flew with them back to the embrace of family and friends in a place far from the horror they had just endured.
For now, the two older children are in Honduras with their grandparents while the younger ones are settling into new schools and starting to come out of their shells. Last week, Emma, 6, shyly recited her ABCs and crayoned pictures in Elder’s apartment. Luis, a rambunctious 4-year-old, clowned and twirled in circles, then stopped in front of a photo. It was a portrait of Claudia and her children, taken for a special occasion.
“Luis. Mami,” he said, jabbing at his face and then his mother’s. He looked up, frowning, then jabbed again. “Luis. Mami.” Then the little boy jumped up and barreled across the room to his father, as fast as his legs would go.