- Former Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso’s eleventh-hour pardons to four incarcerated Cuban-Americans may have been good news for Miami’s anti-Castro extremists, but they created a diplomatic disaster for her successor and dealt a heavy blow to the White House’s crusade against terrorism.
- Alarming levels of gang and government violence continues to plague Honduras as President Ricardo Maduro’s superficial and crowd-pleasing anti-violence rhetoric and measures are becoming increasingly counter-productive and controversial, putting youths at great risk of police brutality.
- Already one of the most corrupt countries in all of Latin America, and with a court system notorious for its venality, the government has failed to seek justice for the victims of vigilante authorities.
- NGO’s and grassroots organizations are promoting rehabilitation as the solution to the gang problem; the government favors imprisonment and the subsequent overcrowding of prisons is creating a new killing field.
- Reform is needed, as Maduro shows no indication of reversing these destructive trends.
Elected to office in November 2001, Honduran President Ricardo Maduro vowed to crack down on the rampant gang violence that plagued his small nation. At that time, many of his countrymen believed he was the right man for the difficult job since he had personally tasted the tragic results of wanton crime in 1997, when kidnappers murdered his son. Soon after, he won the presidency, declaring, “I want to become the first crime victim to get justice for us all.”
Unfortunately, gang activity is nothing new to Honduras. In a country of only 6.8 million, estimates project that there are over 100,000 active gang members, including children as young as eight years old. Many gang members have been forcibly returned to Honduras by U.S. authorities after they had been apprehended on criminal charges in this country. In recent years, Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, two gangs originally spawned in Los Angeles, have emerged as the largest and deadliest.
Since taking office, Maduro has followed through with his pledge of “zero tolerance,” sending scores of gang members to overcrowded prisons. The decrease in violent crime that has resulted from Maduro’s heavy hand was immediately hailed as a victory by his administration. Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez recently stated, “the maras have ceased to terrorize the people, and the neighborhoods previously closed off to the police and the Red Cross have been liberated of the plague of the gangs.”
Alvarez’s claims, however, are both deceptive and misleading, as gang members and street children continue to be murdered at a horrific rate. According to Casa Alianza, an NGO dedicated to helping street children in Central America, violence has claimed the lives of at least 2,200 Hondurans under the age of 23 between January 1998 and February 2004. In July 2004 alone, 36 Honduran youths were murdered. Many of these killings came at the hands of vigilante authorities. According Casa Alianza’s director Bruce Harris, “the past seven years have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of murders and extrajudicial executions of children and youths in Honduras. The involvement of members of the security forces and other officials acting with the implicit consent of the authorities is no longer rumor but verifiable fact . . . there is a glaring discrepancy between the words uttered by the government in public, and its deeds.”
The head of Internal Affairs for Honduras’ national police, Maria Luisa Borjas, courageously acknowledged these police abuses, accusing former Police Commissioner Juan Carlos Bonilla of leading a “death squad” to assassinate criminals and street children. Activism carried out by Casa Alianza successfully brought international attention to Bonilla, eventually leading to his indictment. However, the nation’s hopelessly flawed criminal justice system failed to convict him and he is currently back with the police. Alvarez argues that these killings are “not a policy of the state…we have made it very clear to the police that if they do it, they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Yet these claims are once again a gross misrepresentation of the truth since most of the killings in fact are not investigated and those that are rarely result in convictions. While the government created the Special Unit for the Investigation of Violent Deaths of Children in 2002, according to the most recent Amnesty International report “it has only looked at just 400 of the over 2,300 cases of assassinations of children and youths . . . and just three have resulted in a conviction. Despite the fact that the government has admitted that police officers have been involved in many of the killings, only two policemen have so far been convicted.” This problem is exacerbated by the chronic lack of detectives, particularly in the capital. Only thirty officers are assigned to investigate the murders in Tegucigalpa, which are often perpetrated by off-duty officers. Maduro’s utter failure to seek justice for innocent victims is a blatant sign of his administration’s implicit approval of these killings as a form of “social cleansing.”
Rehabilitation or Possible Death
Critics of the government policies insist that measures must be taken to fully address the root causes of gang participation. Gangs traditionally provide their members with social acceptance and an escape from the country’s extensive poverty. Sara Sauceda Flores, whose son was a Mara 18 member killed by police in February 2002, cannot deny her son’s attraction to the gang lifestyle: It “was a new world. They promised clothes, shoes, gold chains and the chance to be a leader, a boss.” These material and psychological incentives are extremely alluring in a country where 53 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 24 percent of Hondurans make less than one dollar per day. As long as the country remains caught in a never-ending cycle of underdevelopment, gangs will continue to entice street children to a life of crime.
Anti-poverty advocates argue that the government should look for progressive solutions to reduce the causes of this social unrest, not merely respond violently to its unfortunate consequences. Maduro must understand that rehabilitation is both a necessary and effective means to remedy the social ills now plaguing Honduras’ streets.
Sociologist Ernesto Bardales founded Jovenes Hondureños Adelante – Juntos Avancemos (JHAJA) six years ago to help former gang members find jobs and rejoin society in a productive manner. Although many employers are reluctant to hire onetime delinquents, JHAJA has been successful in finding employment for many disenfranchised youths.
The work of the JHAJA is pivotal in removing at-risk youths from the dangers they may otherwise face. Thousands of young men – even those with a single gang tattoo – have been imprisoned under Maduro’s new laws, and ominously that has lately been a death sentence unto itself. With the sudden influx of gang members into the judicial system, Honduran prisons are currently overflowing at 206 percent of capacity, and resulting tragedies have proven inevitable. On May 17, a fire in the San Pedro Sula prison took the lives of 103 inmates, the majority of the victims with ties to the Salvatrucha gang. Witnesses claimed firefighters were slow to respond and rumors abound that the fire was set intentionally by authorities. During a riot in the El Porvenir prison in April 2003, 69 were killed, mainly members of Mara 18. Murders among imprisoned gang members are also frequent. The worst example of this occurred in neighboring El Salvador on August 18, when 31 prisoners died in a fight between members of Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, prompting fears that prison officials are condoning inter-gang violence. To escape murder on the streets or in prison, it is a matter of life or death that gang members be reintegrated into society as productive citizens.
Time for Reform
Unfortunately, the Honduran government has made a bad situation worse. The imprisonment of gang members has created a murder vacuum currently being filled by vigilante-style government crackdowns against street children and those gang members yet to be jailed. Maduro must react against recurrent police atrocities by prosecuting those responsible for human rights abuses. Moreover, he must create a system that rehabilitates gang-members, instead of incarcerating them in over-crowded prisons and exposing them to a risk-laden environment in which they may never live long enough to serve out their jail sentences.
In his nearly two and half years in power, Maduro has faced numerous domestic problems and has failed to adequately address most of them. His still young administration has been hit with a deteriorating economy, rising poverty, a crippling teacher’s strike, massive civil unrest, controversial deployment of troops to Iraq, police misconduct, and widespread corruption. While one can understand his distraction by the raging violence that is gradually consuming his nation, Hondurans elected Maduro on his pledge to reduce violence and improve the economy, and he must now be called on to fulfill those still empty promises.