- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Lately, police have made it a regular practice to descend on gang-ridden neighborhoods in the quiet dawn hours, round up suspected gang leaders and haul them off to jail.

During these raids, helicopters whir overhead, groups of heavily armed police in urban-gray camouflage uniforms and black ski masks burst into homes of sleeping suspects, and President Ricardo Maduro often shows up to see and be seen.

The biggest weapon at the police officers’ disposal in these early-morning deployments is this country’s new antigang law. The Honduran congress passed a law in August that makes it illegal to belong to a gang or other groups that “are formed with the permanent goal of committing crimes.” The penalties are nine to 12 years in prison for gang leaders and six to nine years for members.

The legislation is popular in crime-weary Honduras and could be the start of a regional trend. Legislatures in El Salvador and Guatemala, which also have gang problems, are considering similar measures.

But human rights activists and legal experts in Central America are speaking out. They say the law violates citizens’ rights while helping police incapable of stopping gangs.

Despite disagreements over the new law, no one denies that gang violence is a problem that needs attention. Once a relatively tranquil country, Honduras has seen a rise in crime in the past decade.

“We live in a neighborhood where we can’t go out after 7:30 at night, and we can’t leave our doors open for fear of the gang members. We felt abandoned by the police,” Tania Murillo said.

“It’s a good thing the government is doing this,” she said recently, after being awakened by the clatter of police helicopters swooping into El Pedregal, a nearby neighborhood.

As in the rest of Central America, local gangs that formerly engaged in petty crime and small-scale turf wars have been replaced by violent, rapidly expanding drug-dealing gangs that hold neighborhoods under siege.

Experts say the change is a result of the aggressive U.S. policy in the past decade of deporting criminal immigrants, many of whom got involved with gangs in cities such as Los Angeles. Back in Central America, they introduced this new kind of gang.

While the antigang law was being debated by lawmakers, Honduras was rocked by the killing of nine members of the same household in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city.

Police attributed the massacre to gang violence, and days later, the antigang law was passed. In late September, 11 persons were killed in two assaults on public buses in San Pedro Sula. Police say these attacks also were the work of gangs.

Mr. Maduro was elected president on a tough-on-crime platform four years after his son was killed in a botched kidnapping.

The president says that during his administration, car thefts, bank robberies and kidnappings have dropped significantly, but that killings and other gangland crimes persist.

“Most of the gang members we were capturing were going free the next day, because there wasn’t enough evidence to hold them,” Mr. Maduro said.

“We also had a hard time getting witnesses to testify because they were seeing gang members get out the next day and looking for revenge against those who accused them.

“So instead of taking the long route of accumulating proof of types of crimes committed, we opted to make it illegal to belong to gangs,” the president said.

This is precisely what worries his critics.

“In penal justice, you punish someone for what they do and not who they are. Here, what we see is youth being punished for who they are, even if they haven’t really committed a crime,” said Jose Maria Palacios, a former Honduran Supreme Court justice.

That authorities needed this new law to fight gangs, critics say, is a tacit admission that the police force is inept.

Many of this country’s policing problems are rooted in its authoritarian past. It was only in 1998 that the police completed a four-year transition from being a military to a civilian force, and some Hondurans say the police still have a repressive, in-the-barracks mentality rather than an on-the-street, crime-prevention mind-set.

Not so distant memories of human rights abuses by state security forces in the 1980s generated little enthusiasm in Honduras and among international donors to support the police, especially investigative units.

The result is an underfunded and understaffed force with scant investigative capabilities. Human rights activists say it is not the sort of police force they trust to catch the right people, using a law that gives them so much leeway.

Organizations that work with gangs say rehabilitated gang members and people who never belonged to gangs are being arrested because they are tattooed. They want to see the government do more to prevent the creation of gangs.

The president said that he is aware of the concerns and that the real solution to the gang problem lies in more jobs and better education. Even so, he said the initiative will continue.

“My priority is the 7 million Hondurans who are terrorized,” Mr. Maduro said.

“We are aware of the risk, but we are not making mistakes. We are using indicators like prior arrests, criminal records, intelligence information we have, and obvious indicators like tattoos. We know that going by tattoos can lead to mistakes, but if suspects can prove they are in rehabilitation programs they won’t be held.”

Though the law empowers authorities to arrest gang members — of which there are about 30,000 in Honduras — Mr. Maduro said the police are focusing on leaders now, with a goal of 2,000 arrests in coming months.

And they are looking carefully, the president added. After each raid, on average half of those detained are being released.

The immediate result has been a drop in homicides, which fell 70 percent in the first 10 days of early-morning raids, and an increase in gang members looking for rehabilitation programs. The few programs that exist now have waiting lists.

The question on some people’s minds is: “What’s next?”

“The government’s policy focuses on how to detain these kids, not on where to put them, who is going to care for them, or how to prevent them from killing each other in the jails,” said Leticia Salomon, a sociology professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

“There is no penitentiary policy to rehabilitate or return them into society, and the situation is even worse in the detention centers for minors,” she said. “This is a retaining wall — not a solution.”


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