17 DECEMBER 2003


Non-gang members also being killed, acitivists say

Victims of Honduras' gang war 

Tegucigalpa, Honduras — Jaime Fernando Mejía was last seen alive on Oct. 13, when eyewitnesses saw two police officers force him into a patrol car on his way home from soccer practice in one of the poorest barrios of this crime-plagued city. The gangly, 16-year-old's body was found two days later in a ravine, his face brutally bruised, his nose broken and two bullet holes in his head. There have been no arrests in his death.

Jaime, a high-school student with no criminal record, is among the latest of more than 2,050 Hondurans aged 23 or younger killed in this country in the past five years, one of the highest murder rates for youths in this hemisphere. Many are killed in warfare among this nation's flourishing street gangs. But human rights activists say an equal number are students, homeless children or former gang members slain by state security forces or vigilante groups as part of a “social cleansing” campaign against Honduras' youth. “Our children are being exterminated like rats,” said Jaime's mother, Nolvia Mejía. “Every time I visit my son in the cemetery, I see another new child's grave.”

In a report released last year, a United Nations panel on illegal executions concluded the rate of youth slayings by security agents in Honduras was among the highest in the world and chastised the government for appearing to tolerate the slayings. The report was issued nearly a year after Hondurans elected President Ricardo Maduro on a tough, anti-crime platform. Maduro has conceded that security forces were behind some of the killings and declared one of his top priorities is to end the slaughters.

Maduro created a special unit to investigate the youth slayings, but child welfare advocates contend it is inadequate. In nearly two years, they note, the unit has referred only 35 cases for prosecution. And although 32 police and security officials have been named as suspects, not one person has been convicted in a single youth murder since 1988.

“The fact that the government is finally acknowledging the problem is a huge step forward,” said Marta Savillon, a lawyer investigating the cases for Casa Alianza, a child advocacy group that tracks the murders. “However, we have yet to see any concrete results.”

Government officials say they are doing the best they can with cases that often lack solid leads. “When the new administration came in, the police files were a mess. And sometimes all we have is a body or a body part, without a name,” said Alejandro Pineda, the vice minister of justice. Since the government passed a law in August that makes gang membership a crime, the number of youth murders has dropped to 27 in September and 25 in October, less than half the average for previous months, Pineda noted. Child welfare groups counter that the death tolls sometimes have dropped that low in the past and charge that hundreds of youths have been illegally detained under the highly controversial law. The government also is beefing up its police internal affairs division, hiking police salaries and starting to teach human rights in the police academy.

“The idea that brutality is not the correct way to combat crime is new in Honduras,” conceded Ramón Romero, a top aide to Maduro whose son Emilio, 19, was a gang member killed by unidentified gunmen in September 2002. Recent events suggest that the notion hasn't yet caught on: In April, 68 inmates, most of them gang members, were killed during an uprising in El Porvenir prison in the northern region of the country. A government report concluded most of the inmates had been executed by security forces. Abuses by security forces have been a problem in Honduras since the 1970s and 1980s, when government-backed paramilitary groups tortured and murdered citizens suspected of communist leanings. “Some of the groups exterminating young people today remind us of that past,” said Ernesto Bardales, head of Jha-Ja, a group that rehabilitates former gang members.

Many of these groups cruise through poor neighborhoods in unmarked vans, gunning down young people with automatic weapons pointed out of darkened windows. Their ranks include current and former members of the police and military, as well as organized crime members, according to Romero. Other vigilantes are less sophisticated, but equally deadly. In Choloma, a rough suburb of San Pedro Sula, Jose Angel Portillo, 16, told of seeing two men beat and shoot dead his friend, Jaime Wilfredo Montes, 18, outside a store the night of Aug. 15, for no apparent reason. “I'm sick of your face,” one of the men said before he pulled out a pistol and shot Montes twice in the head and three times in the chest, according to Portillo, who said he and Montes were high-school drop-outs but not criminals. Portillo said he reported the killing to police but the two men, who are known in the community, have not been arrested.

Government officials and child advocates agree that the slayings are in part a reaction to soaring crime rates and a booming population of young people — half of Honduras' nearly 7 million inhabitants are 18 or younger — with almost no prospects in a country mired in poverty and unemployment. Many of those youths migrated to Los Angeles, where they joined street gangs. Starting in 1996, when the United States began deporting thousands of Honduran criminals to their homeland, those youths brought their gang warfare back with them. Increasingly, the gangs work with Honduras-based drug traffickers and are blamed for rampant robbery, rape and other violent crimes.

With police and courts poorly equipped to fight the crime wave, some police and civilians have felt justified in taking justice into their own hands — to the point where, authorities concede, any young person in baggy jeans or sporting a tattoo in a poor neighborhood becomes a target. The reasoning is “I'll kill them before they kill me,” said national police chief Oscar Alvarez, who insisted such a policy is no longer tolerated.

Roberto Fúnez, a tailor, hopes the courts will back that hard line in the case of his son, Elmer Isait Fúnez, 19. On May 6, a police officer responding to a scuffle at a Tegucigalpa high school killed the boy with a single gunshot to the back of his head. The police officer told authorities Fúnez and others were firing at him, but there was no evidence of any weapon at the scene apart from that of the police officer. Scores of witnesses said Fúnez had nothing to do with the fight and was just walking past it when the officer shot him. In the family's small house in Tatumbla, a village outside Tegucigalpa, Roberto Fúnez shows a visitor a scrapbook of his son's achievements. Some papers show Elmer Fúnez was a volunteer firefighter and an A-minus student who dreamed of becoming an investigative journalist. Others contain more than 100 signatures from friends and fellow students declaring his conduct “irreproachable.”

“Elmer was the kind of boy who was a hope for Honduras,” the father said softly. “The only crime he committed was to be young.”

By Letta Tayler,0,6696280.story?coll=ny-worldnews-headlines

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