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by Thelma Mejia

Central America In Bloody War On Gangs

(IPS) TEGUCIGALPA -- Despite a recent all-out offensive on violent crime that involved the armed forces and targeted mainly slum neighborhoods, the number of murders continues to rise in Honduras.

Honduras, along with neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, has one of the world's highest per capital homicide rates.

"Someone dies a violent death every two hours in Honduras. The majority of the murders are extrajudicial executions of minors suspected of belonging to gangs," national human rights commissioner (ombudsman) Ramon Custodio told IPS.

"If people ask me if there are still extrajudicial executions in this country, regrettably I have to say yes," he said. "Many of the murderers are 'sicarios' (hired killers), paid in cash or with wages, who will kill for any amount. So what role does law enforcement play in this situation?"

The month-long Operacion Trueno (Operation Thunder), which was launched Sept. 5, consisted of round-the-clock patrols by some 3,000 police and soldiers in violence-plagued areas like slum neighborhoods, where the security forces seized weapons and searched suspects.

According to a presidential decree, the operation was also supposed to involve private security agencies. But the agencies were reluctant to take part in such a "touchy" question that blurred their role, said Rigoberto Fernandez of the Association of Private Security Companies.

The latest crackdown on crime drew a flood of criticism from human rights organizations, and especially Custodio, who accused the government of failing to understand the limits between private security and the security that the state is under the obligation to provide through its institutions -- in this case, the Ministry of Security.

This is the first time since Honduras returned to democracy 24 years ago that a government has proposed engaging these companies -- which constitute a private army of nearly 60,000 security guards, said police commissioner Simeon Flores -- in the fight against crime.

By contrast, the police force in this impoverished Central American country of 7 million numbers 8,000.

Flores told IPS that 119 private security companies, with some 30,000 guards, operate legally in Honduras. But "we have counted 150 companies that operate without a license, employing another 30,000 men who no one oversees or regulates, and who thus represent a danger to the country. We are identifying them in order to force them to legalize their situation."

Custodio said Honduras is "losing the battle against crime. The actions adopted so far have failed to bring results, and instead of designing a real public security policy, the government has simply carried out high-profile operations that are merely demonstrating its ineffectiveness."

While Operacion Trueno was being carried out, it was not only the number of murders that went up but also kidnappings, with four in the space of just one month.

At the same time, "express kidnappings" -- in which the victim is briefly seized and forced to withdraw money from an automated teller machine, bank accounts or credit cards, or a relatively small ransom is demanded from the family -- increased in shopping centers and other areas, although the authorities have no precise statistics on this largely Latin American phenomenon.

Meanwhile, a study provided to IPS by Casa Alianza (the Latin America branch of the U.S.-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organization) found that in September alone, unknown perpetrators killed 30 suspected gang members between the ages of 15 and 22.

Authorities estimate that around 20,000 young people in Honduras belong to maras, as youth gangs are known in Central America. The biggest gangs are MS (Mara Salvatrucha) and Pandilla 18. Both were founded by Central American immigrants in the United States, who brought the maras back with them when they were later deported to Central America.

In the past four years, article 332 of the Honduran penal code has been overhauled to create more stringent penalties to clamp down on the maras, as part of a "mano dura" or "firm hand" policy. The tough new anti-gang laws make it possible to throw young people in prison for years simply because they belong to maras.

At least 1,000 leaders of the MS and Pandilla 18 are in prison, according to the Ministry of Security. Nevertheless, the maras have continued to grow.

Manuel Capellin, director of Casa Alianza Honduras, told IPS that in the last eight months, 308 minors "have been killed in this country, and since 1998, we have documented 3,303 deaths of children and youngsters."

But as of 2005, just 158 of these cases had been investigated. Police officers were found to be responsible in half of the cases, and sicarios were the perpetrators in the rest, according to the office of the president's Unit of Crimes against Minors. (The unit has been dismantled by the administration of Manuel Zelaya, who took office in January).

Capellin said the 30 murders in September were committed in the provinces of Cortes and Atlantida in the north, Comayagua and Francisco Morazan in the central part of the country, and Choluteca in the south.

In northern Honduras, the cities with the worst problems of gang and organized crime-related violence are San Pedro Sula, Choloma, Cofradia and La Lima, where the country's banana production and maquilas (for-export assembly plants) are concentrated.

In its study, Casa Alianza states that virtually all of the young victims of extrajudicial executions, most of whom were shot with AK-47 assault rifles or revolvers, came from slum neighborhoods.

"Their feet and hands were tied together, and the bodies had been shot at point-blank range in the back of the head before they were dumped along the roadside or in remote places, including garbage dumps," said Capellin.

"Not even juvenile detention centers are safe. A guard recently shot and killed a young man who was in rehabilitation in one of these centers," he added. "International norms on security for minors in detention prohibit the use of lethal weapons in these institutions."

Minister of Security lvaro Romero said his ministry is at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting crime, because there too few police officers and not enough funds.

The ministry's annual budget is $97.7 million. It was raised by $2.1 million this month after police officers revealed in anonymous interviews on television and in the press that they received just 10 bullets a year and that once they ran out, they had to buy any further ammunition themselves.

The complaints were simply a reflection "of a mediocre media campaign aimed at getting the public to see the police as an institution at the service of the people, whose members are deprived by society of almost all of the means needed to serve them better," said Custodio.

"The campaign started out with an image of several masked men -- a scene out of the worst movie that Honduran society has ever seen -- and then the deputy minister of security (Mamilio Rodas) appears, saying the anonymous police officers are right, and that a larger budget is needed," he said.

"I have seen this over and over again in the more than three decades that I have been defending human rights. And Congress scurried to approve additional funds. But no one has demanded that the police give an account of the effectiveness of law enforcement actions like Operacion Trueno," he said.

In a private meeting with media executives in late September, President Zelaya said organized crime had penetrated the police deeply, which made it difficult to clean up the police force, sources present at the meeting revealed to IPS.

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Albion Monitor   November 2, 2006   (

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