SANTA BARBARA, Honduras — The dark-haired beauty was to have flown to London Wednesday to compete in the Miss World pageant — the high point of her reign as Miss Honduras. But the beauty queen and her sister were found shot dead on a remote river bank, and police said the sister's boyfriend confessed to killing them in a jealous rage over his girlfriend dancing with another man.
Bodies believed to be 19-year-old Maria Jose Alvarado and her 23-year-old sister, Sofia, were discovered buried near the spa where they disappeared a week earlier while celebrating the boyfriend's birthday.
At some point during the night of Nov. 13, a heated argument broke out and Plutarco Ruiz pulled a gun, firing first at his girlfriend and then at Alvarado as she tried to flee, said National Police director, Gen. Ramon Sabillon. Alvarado was hit twice in the back.
Their bodies were discovered early Wednesday after Ruiz led investigators to the remote gravesite where he and an alleged accomplice buried them in a mountainous area of Santa Barbara, about 240 miles (400 kilometers) west of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. The accomplice, Aris Maldonado, was also in police custody and authorities were searching for other suspects.
Alvarado's body, wrapped in brown plastic, was loaded into the back of a pickup truck just hours before she was to have boarded a flight to London to compete in the Miss World pageant. A winner will be crowned Dec. 14.
"We had her gown ready and her traditional dress costumes," said television personality Salvador Nasrallah, who employed Alvarado as a model on his TV game show, X-O Da Dinero.
"This is not a crime of passion; this is machismo," added Nasrallah, a former presidential candidate.
Honduras pageant organizer Eduardo Zablah said the country will not compete this year because of the tragic death of Alvarado, who according to her pageant profile played volleyball and soccer and wanted to be a diplomat after graduating university.
The sisters' mother, Teresa Munoz, told Televicentro that Ruiz called her the morning after her daughters disappeared, acting nervous and claiming the young women had left the party in a car with some other people.
She said her daughters were trusting and naive. "They were not very astute about assessing the people around them. They were just friendly," Munoz said. "They were going out with people they hadn't known very long."
Ruiz's brother met a violent end earlier this year, authorities said. David Ruiz Rodriguez was gunned down in a restaurant in San Pedro Sula in February by men carrying AK-47s, according to the police subcommander in charge of the Santa Barbara region, Jorge Rolando Casco.
The shooting deaths of Alvarado and her sister highlight what experts call an alarming trend of violence against women in Central America, fueled by poverty, domestic violence, street gangs, drug trafficking and a culture of chauvinism.
According to a report by the United Nations, murders of women and girls in Honduras increased by 263 percent between 2005 and 2013. The country has the highest murder rate in the world for a country not at war, with an estimated 90 to 95 killings per 100,000 people.
"Violence against women is a huge problem in Honduras," said Adriana Beltran, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.
"A lot of girls die this way, but because they're not famous, it doesn't get the attention and the crimes go unpunished," Nasrallah said.
Beauty pageants are popular in Latin America, where the winners are viewed as celebrities and often go on to become entertainers.
But those who knew Alvarado, who was crowned in April, said she was not caught up in the celebrity of her position. She would go around town in jeans with her hair up and without makeup, Nasrallah said, though she did face some unwanted harassment and had to change her cell number recently.
"When Maria Jose won the pageant, she didn't think it was that important. I just wanted her to be happy," her mother said.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report. Freddy Cuevas reported from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.