The 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gangs in Honduras have launched a truce effort modeled on the one-year truce in El Salvador. The gangs, known as “las frutas de las guerras” for their origin in the bloody Central American civil wars during the Reagan era, left a gash across Central America for decades, one caused at first by the US military interventions and later by thousands of deportations of tattooed and traumatized Central American youth back to their countries of origin.
The US turned Honduras into a virtual military base during the Central American wars, leaving an economy in shambles, then supported a military coup in 2009 against the democratically elected Manuel Zelaya. The unemployment and poverty rates in this US client state remain steep; the prisons are overflowing; and Honduras has the highest murder rate per capita in the world, 85.5 homicides/100,000 inhabitants. US DEA and military personnel are deployed across the country, which is a key transit point for drug shipments. In recent years, Los Angeles Police Department officers have been sent as advisers.
The Honduran state is extremely repressive toward homeless and unemployed youth, lacks an independent judicial apparatus, and spends far more on juvenile incarceration than safety-net programs. The prisons, swollen with MS and 18th Street members, operate under gang customs, while surrounded by armed, poorly trained guards. Several times in recent decades whole prisons have suspiciously burned to the ground, and in one instance the burned bodies of nearly 80 inmates were found executed with shots to the backs of their heads.
It, therefore, is remarkable that the imprisoned homies have taken up a peace process on their own. It will not be easy, given rival factions, hostile prison authorities, informants, a suspicious middle-class electorate, and a budget barren of resources. The truce leaders have the support of Bishop Romulo Emiliani of San Pedro Sula, Adam Blackwell of the Organization of American States (OAS), and even President Porfirio Lobo.
At a series of press conferences from within the prison, gang spokesmen have asked for forgiveness for their past behavior, saying, “we give our word that if the government listens to us, gives jobs, gives us rights and looks after us, we can continue talking.”
The hope is that regional government leaders will create funds for rehabilitation, education and work opportunities in exchange for diminished violence and vendettas. If so, talks of peace may soon yield an actual truce.
The gang truce initiated in El Salvador’s prisons last year has resulted in significant reductions in violence, saving an estimated 2,000 lives. Several Latin American leaders have called on the US to de-militarize its policies and de-escalate the War on Drugs.
The militarized wars on gangs and drugs have created a “rim of steel” across the southern US border region, and deepened the social conflict without producing the economic investment and growth promised by proponents of law-and-order. American and European “reconciliation” funds, which proved effective in Northern Ireland, have not been invested on a significant scale in Central America where several countries are engulfed in the crises of globalization, unemployment and mass incarceration.
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