The Miami Herald
August 27, 2001

For youths in Honduras, the streets prove fatal


 TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Juan Ramón Antúnez was 16 and liked rap music.

 At 11:30 on a Friday night last month, he and two buddies were hanging out in the parking lot of a fast-food joint, playing music and rehearsing rhymes. According to two of his pals, the jam session ended abruptly when an officer from the Honduran Preventive Police came by with an ominous warning: If I count to three and you're still here, I'll put a bullet in your head.

 One. Juan went running, turning the corner as fast as he could.

 Two. The frightening sound of gunfire.

 Three. Juan was dead.

 ``At that hour, if you go home early, nothing happens to you,'' said Juan's brother-in-law, who asked that his name be withheld. ``Here in Honduras, we sort of have the death penalty -- except it's done by the police.''

 Juan, an honor student at a private vocational school, joins a daunting and growing list: the nearly 900 Honduran youths found dead in the street since 1998 -- cases rarely solved and only scantily investigated. According to Covenant House Latin America, the New York church-based runaway shelter, 247 young men under the age of 23 were killed in the first six months of this year. Before then, 221 died last year and 286 the year before.

 A Covenant House study linked only 7 percent of the killings directly to police, and 13 percent to gangs. The majority, 60 percent, are mysteries.

 ``The police will tell you this is a gang war,'' said Covenant House regional director Bruce Harris. ``It's not.''


 Human rights workers and even this country's own ombudsman suspect that a share of those murders were committed by police officers or police-financed private
 citizens. Teenagers found hogtied and shot with weaponry too sophisticated for street gangs makes many people fear that a band of vigilantes bent on ridding the streets of punks has embarked on a social cleansing campaign.

 Activists say the situation is reminiscent of Brazil, where a 1992 congressional study estimated that an average of four children a day were murdered by death squads.

 The United Nations investigator on extrajudicial and arbitrary executions recently ended a 10-day fact-finding mission in Honduras to investigate a phenomenon that police officials say does not exist.

 ``Documented reports indicate that groups of police and private security forces have attacked and killed at least 66 children only from January to June this year,'' the
 investigator, Asma Jahangir, said at a recent news conference. ``This killing has to stop. The number of deaths of children at the hands of security forces in Honduras is among the highest in . . . the world.''

 Police here blame it on the maras -- gangs.

 The word comes from marabunta, a plague of African ants, the kind that eat everything in their path. In Honduras, it provided the nickname given to street gangs -- deadly swarms of teenagers blamed for robberies, rapes and murders.

 ``What is the big problem right now? Everything bad is blamed on the gangs,'' said Honduras ombudsman Leo Valladares. ``Not poverty, not economics. Only gangs. People say, `We must destroy the ants.' ''

 Valladares' office has launched its own investigation. With the probe under way, Valladares said he believes at least a portion of the deaths can be attributed to people seeking revenge and retribution.

 ``Now you have private vigilantes like Charles Bronson who use the law on their side to kill bad people,'' Valladares said. ``Apparently, there are groups of people who suffered an assault or a killing, so they kill.''

 Police say the issue has been exaggerated by nonprofit groups, chiefly Covenant House Latin America, which published a report on the problem earlier this year.

 The Public Ministry said it narrowed Covenant House's 900-plus cases to 606, because some deaths were caused by traffic wrecks and ``natural causes.''

 Of those, Valladares said, 18 were linked to police or private security forces.

 ``Covenant House wants to say it's more, but has not proven there are more,'' said Attorney General Roy Medina. ``I can't as a state agency charge someone because Covenant House says so. I need proof.''

 Security Minister Gautama Fonseca stressed that when evidence points to a police officer, he is arrested like any other murderer. In fact, the Department of Corrections reports that not a single police officer is now in jail for a gang-related killing.

 In some cases, there are warrants out for officers' arrests.


 When Honduran courts failed to issue warrants in one 1995 case, Covenant House took up the issue. In that case, four teenagers were arrested Sept. 15, 1995, at an independence day festival. Witnesses said they were taken from their cells two days later in the middle of the night; by morning, they were dead, their bodies dumped around Tegucigalpa.

 All were killed with the same weapon, forensic tests showed. Courts dismissed the charges because judges considered the teenage witnesses unreliable.

 While concerned about the growing gang violence, Fonseca said he does not have the resources to attack the problem in a country where Congress estimates that more than 31,000 people -- 80 percent of them minors -- are members of one of almost 500 gangs.

 ``Why should we give preference to one kind of case over another?'' Fonseca said. ``Some people want to protect certain classes of delinquents. I don't understand that. All societies have people who want to take justice in their own hands.''

 Street youths interviewed say the death squad theory started when witnesses saw men jump from private cars and kill teenagers.

 ``What happens is that the mareros [gang members] go around killing people. So the police go around killing the mareros,'' said Claudio Lanza, a 14-year-old homeless drug addict. ``The trouble is, when you have these death squads, sometimes they kill innocent people. You're walking, sleeping, and boom, they hit you. The police are crazy. That's bad. They get mixed up and kill the wrong people.''

 Juan Ramón Garvez Ortiz, head of the National Preventive Police gang unit, said delinquents are killed four ways: by one of their own, by rivals, in shootouts with police and by vigilantes.

 ``We do know gang members show up dead every week,'' Garvez said. ``How do we know it was vigilantes who killed them? Because the community tells us. They say, `We can't take this anymore! Someone has to do something. Gangs rob and kill and rape and go free!' This situation worries the government, the country and the police.''

 But activists say that concern does not translate into criminal charges.

 Alexander Obando Reyes, 19, was killed two years ago at Tegucigalpa's Parque La Merced, allegedly by a police officer chasing a shoe thief.

 ``That officer is still on the street,'' said Obando's friend Luis Sosa, 20, a witness who gave sworn statements to prosecutors.

 ``I'd say at least 10 percent of the gang members found dead were killed by the police. Officers grab them and make them disappear.''

 The trouble is, Sosa said, that officers aren't very discriminating.

 ``Look, there are a lot of us kids on the streets,'' he said. ``We hang out in groups, but we're not in a gang. Yes, we use drugs, but we don't rob anybody.

 ``They think we're diabolical and want to kill us.''

                                   © 2001