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Sunday, November 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Honduras' anti-gang law considered license to kill

The Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — It was midday in a hilltop slum, and Jose Alberto Cruz lay dying on a trail of mud and rocks. A few moments earlier, witnesses said, a soldier had cornered the 19-year-old butcher near a shack selling grilled chicken and shot him point-blank in the neck.

An anti-gang law and 3,000 soldiers patrolling the streets have helped Honduras beat back the "Maras," at least half a dozen street gangs who robbed, raped, killed and extorted money from businesses and citizens, terrorizing nearly every corner of society.

But critics call the measure a human-rights nightmare that has touched off a war against Honduran youngsters. They say it has given authorities the freedom to hunt down and kill teenagers who may have no gang loyalty, or dump them indefinitely in overcrowded, under-supervised prisons that are often deadlier than the streets.

In Tegucigalpa, the capital, 20 police officers have been convicted in the slayings of more than 30 suspected gang members in the past year. Eight more are awaiting trial, including Cruz's alleged killer, 20-year-old Wilmer Omar Bones, human-rights prosecutor Aida Romero said.

In the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, 150 miles north of Tegucigalpa, 15 police officers have been implicated in the killings of nine young people since the anti-gang law took effect last summer.

Romero said hundreds more deaths go unpunished.

"The ones perpetrating the violence are the police," she said. "The reform is a mechanism of the state obviously working to penalize poverty."

Still, the anti-gang law has been immensely popular among Hondurans tired of ruthless Maras.

Zero-tolerance fight

President Ricardo Maduro, whose son was kidnapped and killed in 1997, was elected three years ago after promising a zero-tolerance fight against crime.

In August, Congress overwhelmingly approved a new sentencing guideline that made gang membership punishable by up to 12 years in prison. Similar initiatives were soon drafted in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador.

Before Honduras' law took effect, experts estimated that the country of 6.8 million had at least 70,000 gang members, some as young as 8. But Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said because of the new law, thousands have been jailed, scared into going straight or have fled elsewhere.

The anti-gang law gave rise to "Safe Honduras," an operation that deployed 3,000 soldiers to help the 8,000-strong national police force find suspected gang members.

Partly because of human-rights concerns, Alvarez said, officials recently withdrew the soldiers, but will go on using them for anti-gang sting operations.

"Those who are violent are the gangs themselves," Alvarez said. "Those who say differently have their own agenda. And it's not an agenda on how to solve the crime problem."

Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, calls the campaign "social cleansing" in which anyone who objects is "ignored or attacked as pro-street gang."

Attorney General Ovidio Navarro acknowledged a "high number" of accusations that state forces had killed suspected gang members, but said abusers would be prosecuted.

"The use of too much force is not a state policy," he said. "We are doing everything possible to prevent it."

Cruz's family says he wasn't a gang member. But prosecutors believe Bones targeted him Dec. 4 because he thought Cruz had a hand in the shooting death of Bones' brother, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang who died a month earlier.

"They are the law, so who is higher than they are?" asked Cruz's mother, Maria, who sobbed under a painting of the Last Supper in the three-room home she shares with 12 family members. "In Honduras, the authorities do whatever they want."

Romero is trying to link police pistols and rifles to the street executions of 66 suspected gang members in Tegucigalpa since January. But while investigators were collecting ballistic evidence, a police clerk entered a restricted area of a police station and switched 600 of the guns, Romero said.

Taking advantage of the justice-at-all-cost sentiment sweeping the nation, small bands of citizens also have begun killing gang members, Navarro said. But he insisted vigilante violence was not widespread.

"If there hadn't been a reform of the penal code, the situation with the gangs would be much worse," he said.

"So much fear"

Among the law's defenders is Rene Gomez, a former member of the Vatos Locos gang who joined a rehabilitation program and now runs a metalworking shop in San Pedro Sula.

The 22-year-old, who said he used to keep a grenade by the door of his home for protection from rivals, said the law terrified him and hundreds of others into leaving gang life.

"You just get tired," he said. "So much fear, so much death."

But thousands of other young men who remained loyal to the gangs — or simply kept their gang tattoos — have been squeezed into aging prisons. In May, fire swept through San Pedro's state penitentiary, killing 107 prisoners, most of them Mara Salvatrucha members. Authorities insist a short circuit sparked the blaze, but the warden was removed from his post and charged with homicide.

That fire came 13 months after some suspected gang members were locked in their cells, doused with gasoline and set ablaze during a riot at the El Porvenir prison farm near the Caribbean city of La Ceiba. Nearly 70 people, including prisoners, visitors and guards, were killed.

Who threw gasoline on the prisoners remains unclear, but a government report said 47 of those slain had been shot. It concluded that guards did most of the killings, though some prisoners also had guns.

Gang members also go after one another in prison. That's what happened to Eduardo Antonio Velasquez, a Mara Salvatrucha member known on the streets of San Pedro Sula as "The Skull," who was arrested in May at the funeral of a fellow gang member.

His interrogation led investigators to a gang cache of buried machine guns, his neighbors and a Roman Catholic priest said.

In prison, other Mara Salvatrucha members hacked him to pieces with homemade machetes for divulging information and dumped the remains down a storm drain.

"For a lot of people he was bad, a criminal," said his 74-year-old grandmother, Trinidad Argueta. "But for me he was a good boy."

An overworked system

Those not killed behind bars can expect to wait months or years while an overworked justice system processes them. In San Pedro Sula, for instance, 302 suspects have been jailed, but just two have been convicted on gang-membership charges, said investigator Allan Reyes.

Imprisoned in that city's penitentiary for being a Mara Salvatrucha member, Luis Alberto Tejada has "Forgive me, mother, for my crazy life" tattooed across his chest. He said he has remained behind bars for weeks while prosecutors work to link him to a double homicide.

"You put a generation of us in prison, without rehabilitation. The message is the country has given up on its young people," said Tejada, 24. "Honduras is throwing away its future."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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