To L.A. and back

Central Americans fled to Los Angeles in the 1980s and returned with what they learned from L.A. gangs, which grew into something more dangerous.

Published April 17, 2006


TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - A Honduran policeman with a rifle over his shoulder unlocks the sliding steel door to a prison yard and steps back. He'll go no further.

For the door to open a bolt must also be released by one of the inmates on the other side. A prison it may be, but this jail - at least on the inside - is run by the inmates, all 180 of them members of a dreaded Central American street gang.

Visitors are greeted by a colorful mural of gang life, depicting a drive-by shooting. Next to it in huge black letters is the word EIGHTEEN.

Sacred to its members, yet feared and detested by those on the outside, this is barrio territory of the 18th Street gang.

With as many as 100,000 hard-core members, Central American street gangs such as 18th Street and its enemy Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, are blamed for a dramatic crime wave in the region.

Honduras is the most violent country in Latin America with a murder rate almost nine times higher than the United States.

Increasingly, the gangs represent a problem for U.S. law enforcement, which sees mounting evidence of links to organized crime, including immigrant smuggling and drug trafficking.

Though outnumbered 10 to one, Central American authorities have cracked down on the gangs, introducing tough mano dura (hard hand) laws and harsh prison sentences. But critics say human rights abuses by police, as well as an inefficient and corrupt judicial system, have unfairly victimized the gangs.

"They look at us as lesser beings," said Miguel Angel Martinez, alias "Mexicano," a 35-year-old gang member serving a 72-year sentence for his role in a bloody prison fight between the rival gangs.

"We are not angels. We are here for a reason. But you have to see the reality of the thing," he said. "We are from poor families. We never had an opportunity because of who we are."

The gangs were spawned in Los Angeles, a refuge for many Central Americans fleeing armed conflict that engulfed the region in the 1980s.

But tougher immigration laws pushed tens of thousands of gang members back across the border. Many barely knew their home countries. The deportees brought the customs of the L.A. gangs: tattoos, rap music, baggy clothing and hand signs.

"This is a cancer that was bottled up in California and put on an airplane," said Salvador Recinos, a muscle-bound former Salvadoran gang member from L.A., who works as a missionary in Honduras.

But in Central America the gangs mutated into something more dangerous when they joined with local criminal networks, including drug lords and corrupt police.

Ex-gang members tell horrific stories of violence as rival groups battled for turf in poor neighborhoods. At one home run by U.S. missionaries, journalists met a 3-year-old boy who witnessed the execution of his grandmother and four aunts by a gang member. Another young boy was stabbed 23 times after witnessing his mother's murder.

In December 2004, MS-13 gang members are accused of carrying out a massacre, slaughtering 28 bus passengers with assault rifles in the northern city of Chamelecon.

The ensuing government crackdown has filled jails to overflowing. Many of the new inmates were only suspected of gang membership; wearing a tattoo is enough to get a 12-year sentence.

More recently, the legal "hard hand" has prompted a reverse migration of gang members to neighboring countries as well as the United States, where gang membership is estimated at 25,000 and rising.

Police in Honduras say gangs have also adapted by going deeper underground, changing aliases and dropping gang attire. New recruits no longer identify themselves with tattoos.

"Our old data base is useless," said Inspector Florencio Oseguera, an eight-year veteran of the country's small antigang unit.

At the 18th Street jail at Tamara, about 15 miles outside the capital in a pine-covered mountain valley, Ricky Zelaya, 32, greets reporters in fluent English. He wears 18th Street sunglasses and an L.A. Clippers basketball top. Tattooed around his jaw are the words in English: "I never want to laugh again."

Zelaya left Honduras for California when he was 3, and was deported two years ago after a series of arrests on attempted murder and weapons charges. His message is simple: "We just want to get the government to realize we are not animals."

Loud Latino music comes from inside a hanger where the gang members - they call themselves "homies" - sleep in crowded rooms divided only by hardboard partitions.

Inside the jail, prisoners sweep floors and keep their rooms tidy. Laundry is done collectively three days a week. Their clothing is spotless.

MS-13 members are kept in a different section of the jail. Considered less organized and more violent than the 18th Street gang, even volunteer agencies shun them.

The prison provides a daily ration of tortillas, rice and beans - but no meat or vegetables - which the prisoners cook themselves in big pots over stoves.

Some of the more artistic prisoners spend their day drawing and sewing religious patterns. The 18th Street gang is not averse to religious belief. Spiritual conversion is the only permitted way to renounce gang membership. Other deserters risk death.

"I have no fear being here," said Teresa Searcy, a Kansas evangelical who visits the jail regularly to conduct Bible study and arrange medical care.

Last Christmas she cooked dinner for the entire 18th Street jail. Since then the men have taken to calling her "Mom." As a sign of her faith in the men, Searcy wears a large diamond ring and a jewel-encrusted ladies Rolex Oyster.

Searcy is highly critical of the antigang laws which she says only breed greater resentment and a more aggressive gang posture. More than half of the inmates have not been sentenced, despite being behind bars for several years.

Last year, gangs were held responsible for killing 18 police officers. By the same token, human rights groups accuse corrupt police officers and prosecutors of complicity in death squad-style killings of gang members, as well as tampering of evidence to frame gang members. Among the cases in question: the infamous Chamelecon bus massacre, in which politicians may have had a hand.

Some of the Tamara inmates survived a notorious massacre by guards in La Ceiba jail on the northern coast.

In April 2003, guards poured gasoline into a locked cell and set it ablaze, killing 65 18th Street inmates and three visitors.

Some were gunned down by police as they were led from their cells.

While many Hondurans recognize that the gangs are victims of society, they recoil at the suggestion of leniency.

"To stop the killing you have to be tough," said Kenneth See, 68, a Honduran-American and University of Tampa graduate, drinking coffee with friends at an upscale Tegucigalpa mall.

"You have to apply the Ley Fuga (Law of Flight)," he said, referring to the arcane practice of telling a victim to run and gunning him down in the back.

But the failure of the tough new laws to radically reduce the violence has led to calls for a softer policy of rehabilitation.

Olvin Ayala, 19, used to go by the 18th Street gang nickname of El Triste , meaning "The Sad One."

Ayala's life on the streets was typical of most gang members. The son of alcoholic parents, he left home at 9, sleeping on sidewalks under cardboard, eating from garbage bins, inhaling glue fumes and robbing pedestrians.

"The only support we had was among ourselves," he said. "Society distanced itself from us."

A chance encounter four years ago led him to Michael Miller, a St. Louis Presbyterian missionary who runs two small homes for street children.

Despite missing six years of schooling Ayala is preparing to graduate from high school next year.

"These four years I feel have been the first four years of my life. No drugs, and I learned to read," Ayala said, beaming from under a mop of gelled hair.

So far, 22 students have graduated from Miller's project, including three currently studying at Missouri Baptist University.

"A lot of people think these people are beyond hope," said Miller, 33, who named his home the Micah Project after a fearless Old Testament prophet who spoke out against social injustice. "It's all about what services are provided to them."

Armando Meza, 54, created his own ministry, the Youth Christian Movement, after watching the growth of gangs in his own barrio. "I could see our country was going to face a grave situation," he said.

He now runs a team of mostly born-again volunteers who run youth soccer teams in the barrios, with names like Psalm 23 and God's Armada.

One morning last week Meza drove his four-wheel-drive pickup up a rocky track to Mount of Olives, a dusty barri o of wooden lean-tos overlooking the capital. The tin-roofed homes lack running water.

Sitting under a tin roof, 200 children recited the Ten Commandments before running off for soccer practice.

Meza believes that as many as 80 percent of the gang members can be rehabilitated. Despite passage of a law to rehabilitate gang members five years ago, the government has done nothing to implement it.

"They have no idea how to do it," he said. "They talk about re-insertion in society, but how can you talk about that with people who were never inserted in the first place?"

A new government took office earlier this year, pledging rehabilitation for gang members, as well as purging corrupt police officers.

"What we need is a hybrid, a strategy of dissuasion and prevention," said Minister of Security Alvaro Romero, a retired army general with a reputation for honesty.

But, with only 10,340 officers and staff, the police are overwhelmed.

The capital city, with a population of 1.7-million, is served by only 800 officers. Officers, who earn $260 a month, are often victims of extortion and intimidation by the gangs.

Romero is counting on the private sector business leaders to create special workshops where gang members can find employment and training.

But Honduran employers are loath to give jobs to anyone with gang tattoos.

He fears if something isn't done soon, the gangs may mutate again - this time into the kind of guerrilla army that could destabilize the political landscape for years.

"So far, we have seen no ideological motive in their activities," he said. "But that moment could arrive."

-- David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com