Marked men with no place to hide

The Honduran government's crackdown on street gangs has been swift, severe, and - to the relief of the public - successful. But some wonder if so heavy-handed an approach is really the best model for gang control.

The government of Honduras is savoring a victory. Exactly one year ago, it declared war on the "mareros" - members of street gangs accused of terrorizing the country. Today, Honduras's mareros - once estimated at 30,000 strong - are for the most part dead, imprisoned, or in hiding.

But even as the country celebrates its freedom from violence and fear, there are those who look with dismay at what has taken place in Honduras.

Yes, they say, the brutality of gang rule has been checked, allowing the country's 6.6 million citizens to return to normal life. But, these critics add, a high price has been paid for this new-found peace. Civil liberties have been eroded and, they worry, oppressive anti-gang legislation will push the remaining gang members further to the margins of society - into a position both precarious and menacing.

For the gangs, a strange new order

In the dusty streets of La Union - one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula, the country's industrial capital - can be found surviving members of "Mara Salvatrucha" and "Mara 18," the two principal gangs of Central America, both offshoots of Los Angeles street gangs.

"El Body," 23 years old and with 20-some murders to his name, is one of the leaders of Mara 18. Slender, with a boyish face occasionally lit by a smile, he has been a gang member for 10 years.

But today El Body is lying low. The antigang laws initiated a year ago allow the police to make arrests based simply on gang membership ("illicit association" - a crime that can carry a 9-to-12-year jail sentence) or even for simply having a tattoo.

To the mareros, the tattoos are a sign of belonging. They cover arms, hands, and even faces. But they are now also invitations to a jail sentence, El Body and his comrades explained recently. They spoke during a secretive interview granted to a foreign journalist and photographer in the darkened living room of a friend's home.

El Body - tattooed only on the back of his neck - enjoys more freedom than some of his comrades. "Little Pajalo," whose dark eyes shine out amid the blue tattoo marks on his face, says, "I can't go out in daylight with these tattoos. I feel like an animal taken in a trap."

The powerful new laws have succeeded in effectively cutting El Body and his "homies" off from their most violent illicit activities. But at the same time they've also eliminated most other options - including legitimate ones. Somehow, El Body points out, "we must survive and no one will ever give us a job."

Security above all else?

"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," says Oscar Alvarez, Honduras's minister of security, sitting in his tidy, air-conditioned office in the nation's capital.

Mr. Alvarez is today enormously popular with his fellow Hondurans. "Security is no longer the No. 1 problem in this country," he proclaims.

The antigang laws were crafted out over a period of three months and approved almost unanimously by the Honduran Congress last August, at a time when the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador were also struggling to contain gang violence.

Honduras has since become the model for anti-gang legislation in Central America, and five countries in the region have signed a cooperation agreement in the fight against the gangs.

"The people were afraid and wanted security. Now they have it," says Alvarez. Had the government not managed to halt the gangs, he says, citizens might have taken matters into their own hands.

In the poorest neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa, there are many who agree with Alvarez. It's in the back alleys of country's poorest neighborhoods - in a nation where 55 percent of the population are estimated to live under the poverty line - where the gangs have been the most ruthless.

In the Soto neighborhood, a Protestant minister says that until a few months ago it was impossible for him to chat on his doorstep with a neighbor.

"The open gunfire and the violence were so frequent. It was dangerous for the children to play outside. Even the poorest, those living in the street, were sometimes victims of extortion," he explains.

"Before, the gangs imposed a 'revolutionary tax' on the bus drivers," adds a neighbor. "They didn't hesitate to demand services from the residents."

The campaign against the mareros has not exactly been carried out behind closed doors. Accounts of antigang activity have filled the press and Honduran television over the course of the past year - largely at the invitation of the government.

When the country's elite police force - the Cobra, originally created to battle Communist insurgents but today focused on gang warfare - stormed a neighborhood to search for gang members, it was sometimes with a pack of journalists on their heels.

No hope in prison

But not all the press has been positive. Last May a fire caused the death of 104 detainees in the main jail of San Pedro Sula, where 190 members of Salvatrucha were being kept.

Officials said the fire was caused by a short circuit and burned while the prisoners slept, although there are still conflicting reports as to exactly what happened that night.

This was not the first time gang members died under similar conditions in Honduras: In April 2003, in a prison in La Ceiba, 58 members of Mara 18 died during a prison riot. Many had been shot or were found dead in a locked cell.

After a flurry of official inquiries, none of the prison officials involved was suspended from work although some officers are now awaiting trial.

At Tamara, the country's largest prison near Tegucigalpa, 240 members of Mara 18 live in close quarters, mingling during their recreation periods in a vast, bare courtyard decorated with gang graffiti.

Here in prison, gang leaders "El Speedy" and "El Bad Boy" continue to exercise their leadership over the rest of Mara 18.

At 27, El Bad Boy has already spent eight years in detention for murder. El Speedy, who has been involved in negotiations with the government, says that the current situation leaves too little hope for any of his comrades.

"Our proposition," he says, "is that they let us live our lives from now on, that they let us work. If we commit a crime, they arrest us." But, he adds, there must be no more arrests based on "illicit association" or the wearing of tattoos.

A difficult rehabilitation

In an effort to fit into mainstream life, some former gang members try to remove their tattoos. Jorge, 22 years old and recently released from prison, has used battery acid, infra-red laser treatment, and a type of acid cream imported from the US to try to remove the tattoos on his face and arms, acquired during 10 years of membership in Mara Salvatrucha.

Most of these methods, however, are painful and only in replace the tattoos with ugly and indelible scars. But not to remove the tattoos, say gang members, means not only possible arrest but also the certainty of unemployment. "The bosses check to see if you wear tattoos," explains David, a former Mara 18 member and now a friend of Jorge's, despite the fact that they once ran with rival gangs.

But other difficulties loom even larger for these ex-mareros. According to the law of the gangs, to quit is to sign your own death warrant.

"Today, I must hide not only from the police, but also from my former 'homies.' Sometimes, they find you years later to make you pay for the betrayal," explains David.

Hard-won second chances

Rehabilitation of Honduras's gang members is not a problem that will take care of itself, says sociologist Ernesto Bardales. Six years ago he created Jovenes Hondurenos Adelante - Juntos Avancemos (JHAJA) to rehabilitate former gang members.

To help them find work, Mr. Bardales persuades locals to hire ex-gang members that JHAJA trains.

A few miles from the JHAJA office, a small soldering business is flourishing in a neighborhood many once considered too dangerous to visit.

Miguel Angel Baraona left Mara Salvatrucha several years ago. Today, Sandra, the mother of one of his crew members who is also an ex-marero, is preparing red beans for lunch for the whole team.

Sandra, however, worries that the bad times are not over. She fears that the tough antigang laws still in place keep her son perpetually at risk of arrest due to his former associations.

She's grateful for the government's success in its war on the gangs - but fearful of its aftermath. "The anti-gang laws are good. The neighborhood is livable today, but it is not necessary to persecute the ones who have returned to the right path," she says.

Still at work

In San Pedro Sula, El Body visits his 3-month-old daughter, Darling, at the home of his ex-girlfriend, Pamela. Out of respect for the family, he doesn't bring his gun. For a few hours, eating lunch, holding the baby, he gets a taste of life outside the gangs.

Pondering his future, El Body thinks about heading for the US, where he has lived before and where he knows other gang members have fled.

Maybe, he says, there he could find "a town where I wouldn't meet anyone from [Mara 18] and perhaps begin something new."

But for the moment, he's still preoccupied with making a living - and although he says he now eschews violent crime, he has not fully renounced his old vocation.

It's late in the day and he must prepare for a "job" with his comrades. "We'll see each other again maybe one of these days," he says to a reporter in parting. "If I'm still alive."

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