The Shocking Death of Miss Honduras

The killing of a 19-year-old beauty queen and her sister has shocked Honduras—but it’s just the latest horrifically violent crime in the world’s most murderous country.

Maria Jose Alvarado was headed to London to appear in this year’s Miss World pageant on Sunday. In April, the 19-year-old brunette in an emerald gown was crowned Miss Honduras. Bright-eyed and hopeful, she had become a national celebrity in her home country, even appearing on a TV variety show.

“Success is that moment when you reach the finish line and you know you’ve gotten there,” Alvarado answered during the question-and-answer portion of the contest.

In a country besieged by violence, she saw her shot at the crown as a relief from the Central American nation’s constant crime-ridden headlines.

Now, she’ll never get the chance.

Authorities say her body, alongside her sister, Sofia, 23, was found near the Aguagua River in a mountainous region 240 miles west of the nation’s capital.

“My mother is not ready to say anything until she has been notified by the authorities,” said Cory Alvarado, 26, elder sister to Maria Jose and Sofia.

“We need confirmation that it is them,” she told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “This situation has made my mother ill and she can’t take any more calls,” she added before abruptly hanging up the phone.

Both sisters disappeared last Thursday after attending a birthday party at a resort spa to celebrate the birthday of Plutarco Ruiz, Sofia’s boyfriend.

Friends never saw them alive again.

Ruiz and Aris Maldonado, an alleged accomplice, were arrested Tuesday. Ruiz initially told investigators that the Alvarado sisters had left the party with other people, providing vague answers to interrogators’ questions. The family said he and Sofia had been dating for three months.

Hours later, he confessed to having shot his girlfriend out of jealousy. He shot her first in the forehead.

Then he pointed his gun at Miss Honduras as she tried to flee. He fired the pistol for a second time. The bullet hit her in the back. She fell to the ground.

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He loaded both bodies into the back of his white Toyota pickup truck.

Col. Ponce Fonseca of the Interagency National Security Force said Ruiz led investigators to the riverbank very close to the spa where the celebration took place.

“He believed if he buried them close to the river, the bodies would decompose quickly. But we still have to make sure it’s them,” Fonseca said.

A police officer on site said a forensics team and investigators began exhuming the bodies early Wednesday afternoon in the Santa Barbara department, a coffee-growing mountainous region where drug gangs are active. Afterward, the bodies were taken to the morgue to positively identify them. The autopsy report is expected to be completed in the next 24 hours.

The city of San Pedro Sula is an hour away. With a homicide rate of 169 per 100,000 inhabitants, it’s known as the murder capital of the world. That averages to three murders a day.

A year ago, Ruiz’s brother was killed in San Pedro. Investigators say his killing might have been tied to local drug violence.

But in a country overrun by rampant killings, public outcry was most visible online as Hondurans took to social media to denounce the women’s murder and making #alvarado #missuniversnews #plutarco trending topics.

The chairwoman of the Miss World pageant, Julia Morley, said in a statement that all of the Miss World contestants would be holding a special service to honor the memories of the two women.

Maria Jose was born on July 19, 1995, in Santa Barbara. At age 15, a local fashion designer discovered her and encouraged her to compete in the Miss Teen Honduras pageant, where she won second place. She began modeling. Soon, presenter and former presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla recruited her to be a part of his popular game show, making her the people’s favorite to win the crown this spring.

Honduras continues to have significant human-rights problems and pervasive societal violence. Among the most serious are corruption, witness intimidation and a weak justice system, leading to widespread impunity, and unlawful and arbitrary killings by security forces, organized criminal elements, and others, according to a recent State Department report.

The country is also sixth deadliest when it comes to the gender-motivated killing of women.

The U.S. Embassy in Honduras did not issue a statement, but posted a comment on their Facebook page regretting the loss of the Alvarado sisters and urging all “to come together to fight against gender-based violence in the country.”