Politics of Toleration toward Youths Extermination in Honduras

April 27th 2003

by Gaelle Sevenier

On April 5th, 70 people died in the Honduran penitentiary of La Granja Penal in El Porvenir of La Ceiba, located on the atlantic coast of Honduras. This incident, treated by the police as a result of the fights between different gangs inside the jail, would in fact be a massacre organized by members of the Honduran authorities in order to eliminate youth delinquency in the country. Since January 1998, more than 1,750 children and youth have been murdered in Honduras. Death squads regularly come in cars with polarized windows to the poorest suburbs of the big cities and target the suspecious youth, even sometimes innocents who do not belong to any gang. The death squats act in total impunity: no one is investigating these cold-blooded murders, as the Hoinduran authorities see them as a "social cleansing."


In the Porvenir Jail, located 20 kilometers away from the city of La Ceiba in Honduras, a massacre has claimed 70 lives and 39 reported injuries. Calcimined bodies, heads cut of, prisoners reduced in pieces by the grenades and shot guns, these are some of the scenes from the prison. . The regional coordinator of the fiscality, José Cruz Dominguez, had never seen such a horrible scene. Among the deaths, 66 were prisoners belonging to Honduran gangs. Not only were inmates murdered but also three women and a one year old little girl were killed during their visit while the police suffered one casualty. Honduran authority members are responsible for organizing the massacre: they introduced the weapons and explosives in the penitentiary, stimulated the fight between the prisoners and opened fire on the crowd. Only one sub officer, Oscar Reyniery Sanchez, has been suspended and arrested after being officially accused by surviving prisoners. A few days before the massacre in El Porvenir, 7 prisoners from another penitentiary, one in the city of San Pedro Sula, have also been mysteriously assassinated. The Comity of family of detained-disappeared members in Honduras (Comité de Familiares de Detenido-Desaparecidos en Honduras, COFADEH) talks about an "official politics of tolerated extermination" and calls for the international community to denounce and condemn the Honduran government.

The murders of young people suspected to belong to gangs is not a new phenomenon in the country. Since 1998, more than 1750 murders of teenagers between the age af 10 and 23 have been counted. Testimonies prove that at least once a month, a "gray car" or a "red car" comes at any time of the day to areas where gang members live. The drivers order the kids to get undressed and show any tattoos. If they have one, whether it is gang related or not, they are either killed right away, generally with a bullet through the head, or brought to the squad cars where the persecutors torture and "disappear" their victims. No one knows who the death squads are. Many people say the police are involved in those death squads. Private vigilante groups supported by businesses have also been denounced for supporting the killers. Whoever the murderers are, the Honduran Government "is responsible for omission for not aggressively prosecuting the perpetrators," denounces Bruce Harris, ex-president of the NGO Casa Alianza. "This obvious failure of the State of Honduras to punish those responsible for the murders of the children is not only an omission, but could also be interpreted as encouragement for others to take the same illegal actions against Honduran gang members."

The gang phenomenon is a recurrent problem in Central America. The so-called "Maras" are a product "Made in USA". The name mara comes from the word "Marabunta," a plague of African wild ants that eat everything in their path. During the 60s, gangs in the United States identified themselves with this name, as they planned to invade the city of Los Angeles. When the Latino immigrants from the United States returned to their countries, they re-created the same gang structures in Central America.

The economical crisis following the ecological disaster of Hurricane Mitch in November 1998 amplified the gang phenomenon. The economy fell, many families never recovered since they were left without homes or salaries. Today, more than 300,000 children are living marginalized in the streets of Honduras. In order to re-create a social identity as well as a family environment, some turned to delinquency -- joining one of the 475 gangs in the country.

Delmer lives in a poor suburb of San Pedro Sula, the second biggest city of Honduras. He is 23 years old, and father to a little girl who is one and half. The tattoos covering his entire body do not impress the child who knows very well the power of her big eyes over her daddy. Delmer entered the Gang "Sur 13" when he was 10 years old, after his father had left his mother alone and without any money. "The mara was a family for me," he explains. "We all lived together. If one of us didn't eat, no one ate." Today, aware of the murders of most of his friends and siblings, the young men involved in a reintegration program fears for his life and the security of his daughter.

The majority of society sees these teenagers as a "social disease", "ants to be destroyed." It is reaching the point where any teenager with a tattoo, low-riding pants, earrings or shaved heads are automatically considered by Honduran society as dangerouscriminals. However, these gang members remain children in great need of social reintegration programs. The Honduran government seems to have decided otherwise. In November 2001, Ricardo Maduro, leader of the opposition National Party, was elected president of Honduras with the political slogans of "Zero Tolerance " and a "War against Delinquency." Since then, the extra-judicial murders of teenagers in Honduras have increased significantly. The authorities, officially implicated in 25% of the death of young people suspected of belonging to gangs, seem to disguise the murders in fights between different gangs, or use the existing fights without intervening in order to eliminate the nasty elements from the Honduran society.

Three years ago, the president Ricardo Maduro lost his son during a kidnapping attempt. The president would now be seeking revenge against gangs by allowing the murders to happen. Over the last years, the government has increased the financial resources of the police and the army, there have been reform attempts to reduce the age one can be tried as an adult from 18 to 16 and to reinstate military service as well as the death penalty. In contrast, there are no funds dedicated to social reintegration programs, and today, many testimonies involve the police in cases of murders and tortures.

Delmer has himself experienced the violence of police authorities. The last time he was detained by the police, he was coming back from a funeral of a young boy who had been killed. "I was sitting down, relaxing with a few other young people," explains the ex-gang member. "They came and they said: "stand up, get into the car." They took me, undressed me and hung me upside down by the feet. Then they beat me with an aluminum bat until they dropped me on my head to the floor. They shot one kid through the feet when they captured him. Nobody ran out or anything, we were just resting. They can do anything they want with the youth around here…"

What happened to Delmer that day isn't anything exceptional in the Honduran suburbs. An other young boy living in the poor area of San Pedro Sula, Victor, was recently shot in the spin by a police officer, leaving him paraplegic, confined in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. Victor did not belong to any gang, only one night was he a bit drunk when the police caught him. "The information the police gave is that he was running away and he was "a dangerous thief."" Testifies a friend of his. "It was a lie. But here the information they give prevails, not ours…"

Ricardo Torres, coordinator of the Delinquent Youth Recuperation Program of the organization Peace and Justice admits that, in all the murder cases, "there must be people in the country who know what is going on. But no one wants to denounce." No one, except one police sub commissioner, María Luisa Borjas, who dared last October to speak out loud. Borjas, who has served in the Honduran police for the past 25 years, publicly denounced that there are officials and police agents implicated in the execution of suspected gang members. "I have proof" she declared, "that much evidence is being destroyed and manipulated so that the investigation can not be concluded." The participation of those authorities, she claims, has been through "execution, omission, complicity and concealment." As a result of her public declaration, María Luisa Borjas has been marginalized inside her department: she was asked to leave her position, some of her staff members have been fired, leaving her without enough resources to continue the investigation, and she has received death threats.

Many human rights organizations have played a role in denouncing the extra-judicial murders. During a visit to Honduras, a representative of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, Asma Jahangir, denounced "a climate in which children can be assassinated with impunity." What she saw and heard during her visit "made clear that children are being killed in Honduras by members of the security forces." In August 2002, the president of the Human Rights Defense committee of Honduras (CODEH), Andrés Pavón, assured in a press release that "the police are not only responsible for cases of torture but there are also high-ranking officials responsible for the crimes." Today, even the Catholic Church has denounced the state's passivity regarding the 1,750 murders of Honduran youth.

The Mennonite organization Peace and Justice is helping gang members to reintegrate into Honduran society. They have helped the gang members clean the walls of their houses to erase gang graffiti. One of the main barriers for ex-gang members' reintegration into a normal life are the tattoos covering their bodies. Tattoos are synonymous with the death penalty if bearers are caught on the street. Moreover, they are always asked to undress prior to being employed -- if they have a tattoo, no one hires them. Removing a tattoo through laser work is extremely expensive and none of the kids can afford it. Considering the enormous need, the organization has found a way to clean the skin using an infrared machine donated by a church in the United States. The process is very long and painful. The first day the organization had access to the instruments, 200 teenagers had heard of it and were waiting in line, hoping Peace and Justice would offer them access to a new life without discrimination.

Today, still, even with the development of the reinsertion programs, a teenager risks being murdered at any time if ever he is displaying a tattoo. The members of the organization lament the death of 25 out of 60 of the children involved in the organization's reintegration process: "it hurts us in our soul that some of our youth, who have been involved in reintegration for over 2 years have been killed," says Ricardo Torres. Since the recent massacres in the Honduran penitentiaries, the director of Peace and Justice, Ondina Mirillo calls for the international mobilization: "we are afraid that the massacres of the youths in our penitentiaries remain with impunity, that they will not clarify the facts or either find the ones responsible, like it happened with the terrible killings of young gang members in the whole country during the past years." "The facts that are happening daily with the youths in our jails or the ones in the streets of our Honduran cities will not prevent us from the rehabilitation work we do on the delinquent groups; we are convinced that those young people need the help of the Honduran population in order to stop their violent acts and convert themselves into responsible citizens."


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