Hit men lay in wait at the home of Palacios, 34, a well-known anchor for Channel 5, the main TV station in the Tocoa area, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. Palacios arrived about 10 p.m. with a cousin in the back seat of a double cabin 4-by-4 pickup, and his girlfriend, a doctor, in the passenger seat. Neighbors told local reporters that a few shots were initially fired, apparently by a lookout, followed by a fusillade of gunfire as other assailants joined in. Palacios died at the scene. Dr. Yorleny Sánchez, badly injured, died two weeks later. Palacios’ cousin was not injured, local press reports said.
Several work-related motives emerged in a July 2010 CPJ investigation. Palacios opposed the 2009 military-backed coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, and he had turned the TV station into an openly opposition channel, his colleagues said. Military personnel appeared at his house and detained him and his family for several hours in June 2009. That episode, along with other threats from the military, was strong enough that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued an order to the government of Honduras to protect Palacios. According to the commission, it was one of more than 400 such orders issued for journalists and activists in Honduras in 2009 and 2010.
The Honduran government was required by an international treaty to follow the directives, but it appeared to have ignored most of them. The government asserted that it never received an order in the Palacios case, although the Inter-American Commission noted that it had a signed receipt from the Honduran Supreme Court.
In the months before his slaying, Palacios campaigned on behalf of a group of several thousand peasants who had been demanding vast tracts of land they said rightfully belonged to them. They claimed that a few large landowners, in violation of agrarian reform laws, had greatly underpaid them for land many years earlier. Some of the land was retaken by the peasants–simply stolen, according to the landowners–and there were occasional armed encounters. Peasant activists said some of their leaders had been abducted and disappeared, or singled out and killed.
Aside from the wide belief that Palacios’ killing was politically inspired, some CPJ sources said he could have angered a local drug gang with a recent news story about a cartel-linked kidnapping. Sources also said that Palacios, like other Tocoa journalists, had been accused of extorting money from sources. Palacios’ father, José Heriberto Palacios denied his son could have been dishonest. “They killed him because he was honest and was not corrupt,” he told CPJ.
The case was marked by a series of investigative failures. Almost three months after Palacios was gunned down, a team of investigators came to his grave in his hometown of Rigores, dug up his body, and at the graveside, in the open, conducted an autopsy. The coroner never examined the body after the murder; it had gone straight from the murder scene to the funeral home. Investigators also started asking news photographers if they had any pictures of the crime scene because police had no photographs of their own. The prosecutor in charge of the case, Arody Reyes, conceded to CPJ that though the gunmen had lain in wait for hours at Palacios’ house, police had not been able to retrieve any evidence from the scene.
Reyes said the exhumation and autopsy were suddenly important because the Honduran government had enlisted the help of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Local investigators, Reyes said, needed to show their U.S. counterparts something.