November 26, 2001

Honduras president-elect pledges war on crime

                 TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- The winner of Honduras' presidential
                 elections pledged Monday to do whatever necessary -- including using
                 soldiers -- to confront the gangs, killings, kidnappings and white-collar
                 crimes that plague this Central American country.

                 Ricardo Maduro, a political newcomer of the Nationalist Party, was declared the
                 winner of Sunday's race with a projected 53 percent of the vote, defeating Rafael
                 Pineda of the ruling Liberal Party, who got 44 percent.

                 Maduro has pledged to use a New York City-style "zero tolerance" approach in his
                 fight against crime, but he faces a monumental task.

                 Of the 19 Americans murdered here in the last three years, not one of their killers
                 has been convicted. In the capital, Tegucigalpa, businessmen sit at cafes discussing
                 how to create false receipts for under-the-table payments, while blocks, away,
                 street children as young as 6 sniff glue from baby-food jars.

                 Maduro, a businessman and political neophyte, says he wants to break the
                 atmosphere of lawlessness. He is no stranger to crime. His own son was gunned
                 down in an apparent kidnapping attempt in 1997.

                 "I want to become the first crime victim to get justice for us all," he said.

                 But in a country where a gang member or street child turns up murdered once a
                 day on average, Maduro has raised fears that the crackdown on crime may bring
                 more violence in this country of 6.5 million.

                 Medical salesman Felix Alvarado, 53, said the "maras" youth gangs, with an
                 estimated 70,000 members, are a serious problem.

                 "A lot of it is the result of a lack of jobs and opportunities," he said. "And when
                 they find a mara member dead, it's as if they had found a dead animal. They don't
                 do anything."

                 Many argue that is the case with most murders here. In July, a prosecutor freed the
                 suspected killer of U.S. citizen William Donohue on a technicality, although he was
                 found with a gun and Donohue's license plate number.

                 Maduro hired private lawyers in a bid to successfully prosecute his son's killer --
                 just as diplomats have suggested the families of U.S. victims do. The murder
                 suspect subsequently escaped from prison.

                 "Imagine, if I have resources and influence and that happens to me, what happens
                 to the average person," he said.

                 Maduro has denied planning a violent crackdown, saying "the only people who have
                 to be afraid are those who break the law."

                 Citing a lack of police, Maduro, 54, said "it may be necessary, at the start, to call
                 on the a rmed forces."

                 He also plans special police squads for kidnapping and organized crime and a
                 campaign against minor crimes like traffic violations, vagrancy and littering.

                 He estimated that Hondurans could expect a reduction in crime within one year, but
                 acknowledged that the root problems like poverty and unemployment "will take 8,
                 10, 12 years to resolve."

                 He also plans to reform the prison system, where 90 percent of inmates are locked
                 up -- sometimes for years -- awaiting trial.

                 "Every bad thing you can imagine exists in our prison system," admits Security
                 Minister Gautama Fonseca. "In the police force, there are problems of corruption,
                 lack of training, equipment, everything."

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press