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'Homies Were Burning Alive'

105 gang members burned to death in a Honduran prison fire in May. It's clear that the Honduran war on gangs is out of control; what isn't so clear is the U.S. connection.
 
 
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TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS -- In first-ever interviews, representatives of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang in Honduras this week described how security forces were to blame for the May 17 prison fire that killed 105 of those they call their homeboys. In addition to starting the fire, police and prison guards allegedly kept the facility's gates locked for over an hour while trapped inmates were burnt alive or died from smoke inhalation.

Human rights observers, children's advocates, and MS members say the tragedy is a direct consequence of Honduras' mano dura (strong fist) policies. These policies employ suppression tactics based on New York City's "zero tolerance" police strategies of the '90s, and were instituted on the advice of the Manhattan Institute think-tank and the Giuliani Group, which have exported the New York model to Latin America.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani's policies, while popular with many New Yorkers, resulted in notorious police shootings of innocent individuals such as Amadou Diallo. The tactics also included stop-and-frisk sweeps that led to the preventive detention of thousands of young blacks and Latinos, until lawsuits challenging racial profiling methods spelled the demise of the NYPD's Street Crime Units.

An over-the-top version of the New York City model is, however, gaining a new lease on life in countries like Honduras and El Salvador as the street gangs become a global phenomenon -- fueled mainly by deportations from the U.S.

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A survivor of the May 17, 2004 prison fire in San Pedro Sula, Honduras shows his burns. 105 members of the MS gang died; inmates blame police.

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One of 51 members of the 18th Street gang executed by police in El Porvenir prison, Ceiba, Honduras on April 5, 2003.

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Thirty Honduran youth, ages 12 to 17, were detained indefinitely without charges or trial dates, in a cell without a toilet, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

In the past five years, over 900 kids, 18 and younger, have turned up dead in the streets, ditches, or dumpsters of Honduras -- in terms of the nation's population, that is roughly equivalent to 45,000 fatalities in the U.S. Honduran officials estimate that 20 percent of the victims were killed by police or private death squads who prowl the streets in station wagons with tinted windows and no license plates. Most of the victims -- usually deportees from Los Angeles -- were identified as gang members because of their tattoos, although a majority had no criminal history.

The prisons themselves have become the scenes of mass-scale killings. On Apr. 5, 2003, 68 inmates affiliated with the 18th Street gang were killed in a prison massacre near La Ceiba, in northern Honduras. Initially, prison officials blamed the inmates for causing the fatal fire, but a government-appointed commission later concluded that 51 of the dead prisoners had been summarily executed by police officials, who then set the fire to cover up the killings. No one has been charged for these murders.

The latest fire catastrophe on May 17 was in a prison near San Pedro Sula, the center of maqiladora employment in northeast Honduras. Police officials blamed the blaze on faulty wiring, but human rights observers are skeptical -- and with good reason.

The evidence on hand justifies their suspicions. The fire broke out only in the MS cellblock even though the prison has more than 15 other blocks. Before the fire started, inmates phoned friends on the outside to express their worries about smelling gas in the air. After the fire exploded and inmates began screaming, police officials on the scene failed to open the compound gates for two hours. They instead fired shots in the air to discourage inmates from escaping. Firefighters didn't arrive for at least an hour, even though a substation was less than five minutes away. And three massive containers of water, used for showers, were inexplicably empty on the day of the fire.

Gang Members Speak Out for First Time

The harshest denunciation of the official story of May 17 comes from gang members themselves, who spoke under condition of anonymity.

They received secret warnings of an impending crisis just after midnight. "Homie, we're having trouble. I smell gas" was the message. Then an object emitting a gas-like substance was thrown into cellblock 19, and immediately ignited.

"We thought we all would die. The homies ran to the cellblock door. We started screaming for help. The police could see us. They were shooting and doing nothing. Homies were burning alive or dying from the smoke. We started trying to break the [doors] with our weights," an inmate says.

One surviving inmate could not explain why he was alive. As in a religious experience, he said, the fire seemed to part as he jumped for his life and rolled into a bathroom between the burning cellblock and an outer wall. He was saved by an overhead air vent that could be turned on.

The same prisoner also recognized police anti-gang units as the men standing at the gates. Locally known as "Cobras" since the Contra wars of the '80s, they were yelling "Die, you motherfuckers! Die!"

These eyewitness accounts were given by MS members, who also brought in four survivors with raw burns covering most of their bodies to be photographed. The hallway outside their cell was filled with dozens of heavily-tattooed homeboys who leaned alertly against the walls. Each fully expects to be the next victim of a "mysterious" fire or some other convenient disaster.

Exposed wires stretch across the prison over their heads and along the walls, including a crowded space with a dilapidated refrigerator, stove and hotplates. The stench from open toilets is omnipresent, no matter how much the inmates try to clean their cells and press their clothes.

In the yard, Protestant evangelicals wave Bibles and preach repentance, as blank-faced guards shouldering automatic weapons stand a few yards away.

At an earlier interview in McDonald's in San Pedro Sula, while children skipped and jumped on indoor slides, two designated MS representatives, both armed and wary, remain defiant. They insist that the security forces' efforts to "exterminate" the gang will not succeed. Police hatred of MS, they claim, is because the pandilla (gang) refuses to pay "rent" to the drug-trafficking mafia who enjoy official impunity.

MS and its rival gang, 18th Street, grew among refugees from the U.S.-sponsored Central American wars of the 1980s in Los Angeles. Fleeing violence in their homelands, the refugees started gangs for safety and solidarity in places like the Pico-Union immigrant community of downtown LA. Many thousands of their members have been convicted and deported back to Central America, triggering a globalization of the gang phenomenon.

One of those interviewed at McDonald's says that his elder brother created MS in Honduras just over a decade ago. Youngsters joined the gang in those days, he says, "to kick it, for something to do, some weed, to disco, to learn how to dance, just normal stuff." (A recent survey of 499 Honduran gang members and parents by Dr. Jose Acevedo for the Christian Youth Association revealed that 33 percent said their motive for joining their gangs was "la diversion"; 29 percent said "la amistad"; and 17.4 percent said "la baile," or dancing.) The war with 18th Street began in Los Angeles in 1991 over equally minor grievances, "like over their girls wanting to hang with us." The squabble soon escalated into a Hobbesian war for survival with rival gangs on the one hand, and police and death squads on the other.

Two weeks before the Mcdonald's interview, the MS representative said, he evaded police in a car chase and shootout. He constantly changes cell phones and residences. Yet he has never been convicted or imprisoned in either Honduras or the U.S. A father of two, he readily acknowledges that "we are not angels, we will kill our enemies, and we don't pay no fucking rent to the police." But he insists, "We are human beings, not animals. If we break the law, convict us fair and square. But they are picking up, violating and killing kids off the street just because they have tattoos."

Ernesto Bardales, a youth worker who originally supported the harsh anti-gang law, believes the law he once favored has only created "a climate of incitement against the pandilleros." Nothing has changed since last year's massacre, he said, "there is the same hate, the same fantastic projections" about the gang crisis.

This MS representative says he wants "this shit to end." He wants reforms of the anti-gang laws to exclude convictions solely for tattoos. His partner, who is a significant leader in the international MS network, claims that he was picked up earlier this year and tortured by police with needles and electrical wires to his genitals. (The Honduras Human Rights Commission has accused prison police of using electric shock and water immersion techniques.)

The government policy, they say, is to sweep the trash off the streets, then burn it. The gang members point to the policy of indefinite pre-trial detention, and the country's virtual lack of any rehabilitation programs.

Sweeping the Trash

While gang atrocities are real, U.S. Embassy officials say that only three percent of all prison inmates are gang-members. A U.S. security expert acknowledged that "you can't get much cooperation on white-collar crime, corruption and drugs, but everyone agrees on cracking down on street crime."

The government's real goal is to 'sweep' the streets to make Honduras safe for sweatshops, increasingly the leading employment sector. Honduras' failed economy leaves 80 percent of the population in poverty with 40 percent subsisting on less than one U.S. dollar per day.

The social crisis is aggravated by a prison system filled to twice its intended capacity, and where almost 90 percent of inmates are pretrial detainees -- arrested without warrants and never charged with a crime. The prison budget allocates 46 cents (U.S.) per day for food and medicine. U.S. State Department reports document severe overcrowding, malnutrition, poor sanitation, beatings and other abuses. The prison where the recent fire took place was designed for 800 inmates, and currently holds 2,200.

Juvenile offenders are treated as harshly and arbitrarily as gang members. A visit to one cellblock for 12-to-17-year-old juvenile offenders outside Tegucigalpa reveals 30 youngsters packed in a room without a toilet. Half of those interviewed have no shoes. Several have chicken pox to which the rest were exposed. Open electrical wires were draped across their blankets. They have built makeshift beds out of any materials they can find. None of them have been convicted or sentenced for any crime, and most expect to be detained longer than any sentences they eventually might receive.

According to the 2001 UN report, only five percent of all crimes and misdemeanors and only 0.02 percent of murders are committed by children. The same report concluded that "in the end, every child with a tattoo and street child is stigmatized as a criminal who is creating an unfriendly climate for investment and tourism in the country"

One 12-year-old in the prison stands out because of his blue eyes and strong American accent. He admits to stealing money from a friend of his family, which includes a former U.S. Marine stepfather and a mother from Texas. Even though the victims asked the court to drop all charges, he says the judge insisted on detaining him to teach a lesson. He expects to spend two years in prison.

Honduras has a variety of determined children's rehabilitation organizations, such as Casa Alianza and Victory Outreach, which try to rescue street children and monitor disappearances, extra-judicial executions, child trafficking and prostitution. They are consulted by government agencies and cited by the media and State Department human rights reports. But they lack the capacity to rehabilitate more than a few hundred children in a sea of social and economic neglect. In visits to Casa Alianza's urban center and Victory Outreach's rural encampment, counselors said that while they could rehabilitate countless youngsters, it is almost impossible to reintegrate them safely into society. While over 400,000 Honduran youngsters are employed in the illegal underground economy, many more have no employment prospects at all.

In such conditions, the growth of gangs like MS and 18th Street appears inevitable and unstoppable.

The U.S. Connection

The 2001 "mano duro" campaign of President Ricardo Maduro grew from daily crime crises in Honduras, specifically the 1997 killing of the president's own son in a botched kidnapping attempt. But the initiative was also "made in the U.S.A" from the very beginning. "I saw how it worked in New York, and I liked how it worked," Maduro told the Associated Press in 2001. He was referring to the "zero tolerance" policies of cracking down on littering, graffiti, vagrancy and traffic violations. "Instead of taking the long route of accumulating proof of types of crimes committed, we opted to make it illegal to belong to gangs," he said in another interview.

Although his only previous experience was running the Honduras Central Bank, Maduro won the 2001 election against a 71-year-old candidate who stressed improving public education. A political novice, Maduro was mesmerized by the New York model. Honduran officials met with Mayor Giuliani's staff and New York police officials, and with experts at the Manhattan Institute, the ideological fountainhead of the doctrines of "zero tolerance" policing that were adopted by the Giuliani administration. Maduro, however, outdid his mentors, assigning more than half the Honduran army to joint patrols with local police, often personally going on early morning raids of neighborhoods.

Not only did Giuliani's foundation staff pay a visit to Tegucigalpa, but so did law-enforcement gang units from Los Angeles, the other epicenter of the gangs and immigration crises. These cities had one aspect in common: Street gangs were becoming the scapegoats justifying an intensified rhetoric emphasizing law-and-order.

Martha Savillon, an attorney who works with Casa Alianza in Tegucigalpa, remembers L.A. sherriffs' deputies visiting San Pedro Sula in 1997 for "training" workshops, which led to the establishment of the Salvadoran special anti-gang units. Some of their rhetoric sounded good, she says, like "crime prevention" and "community policing," but in practice, the ill-trained Honduran police would "just investigate, detain, and act as guardians of the data base" -- a secret law enforcement tracking system coordinated with the F.B.I. that was created and is used without any guidelines or civilian oversight.

In his small human rights office in San Pedro, Ernesto Bardales also remembers the L.A. sheriffs' visit, and even retains their business cards. One was from an inter-agency "gang homicide task force" and another from the homicide division. Bardales willingly participated in the trainings, but noticed that it was about intelligence-gathering, identifying and targeting gang members more than building a new, law-abiding police force.

After the May 17 fire in the San Pedro de Sula prison, Savillon noted, the American FBI "came right away to investigate, so there must have been a previous relationship."

In an interview on deep background, a U.S. official in Tegucigalpa said that American policy is to "export best [police] practices" to Honduras, which includes recent visits by Los Angeles and San Jose gang experts. Another U.S. security expert acknowledged "tracking and monitoring" gang activity to protect U.S. interests. He insists that the May 17 fire "could have been wiring -- my take is it's credible, it started with inmates in clothing [trying] to escape."

Other American officials readily admit, also on background, that Honduras "lacks a rule of law." Nevertheless, their reports on human rights abuses notably omit criticism of the anti-gang laws. State Department reports simply note that the law was passed in 2003, and that human rights complaints against its provisions "did not have standing." The same official report cites the 2001 UN report but makes no mention of its criticism of Honduran law enforcement.

The U.S. government's silence towards the sweeping anti-gang laws and crackdowns may reflect its own complicity in the creation and continuation of these policies.

Honduras was cynically known as the "Pentagon republic" in the '80s when it served as the base of military and intelligence operations against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the Contra wars. That period was marked by military regimes, a security apparatus linked to Sun Myung Moon's religious anti-communist crusade, nearly 200 officially organized disappearances and assassinations, repression of popular organizations, and an economy subjected to Reaganomics. That shadowy and violent gangs should emerge in its aftermath is hardly surprising. (The architect of those destabilizing Honduran policies during the Ronald Reagan presidency, John Dmitri Negroponte, is the newly-appointed U.S. ambassador to Iraq.)

One of the MS representatives attributes his survival thus far to having been "trained to have a military mind, how to be a bad motherfucker" during training for the Honduran infantry in the 1980s at a U.S. facility in California.

Thanks to continued U.S. involvement, the future does not look any brighter for Honduras. The MS member warns, "If they don't stop, we're gonna do something crazy. If I get treated like an animal, I'm gonna treat you like an animal."

Tom Hayden is the author of Street Wars (New Press, 2004). He visited Honduras from May 27-30. For his photos from inside Honduran prisons, go to www.tomhayden.com.