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Honduran Riot Displays Gangs’ Brutality

April 7, 2003

LA CIEBA, Honduras (AP) _ They have a fanatical devotion to their cause and they dream of bringing their violence to America’s streets.

They’re not terrorists, but ``maras,″ Central America’s U.S.-style street gangs whose brutality was on display Saturday during a prison riot that killed 69 people and injured 31 others on Honduras’ Caribbean coast.

Authorities say about 100 members of the Mara 18 gang tried to take control of El Porvenir prison, attacking inmates who were not loyal to their gang with knives and guns.

Hundreds of regular prisoners grabbed weapons of their own and fought back, tossing smuggled grenades and starting fires that engulfed part of the prison. Of the 69 people burned, stabbed, shot or beaten to death, 61 were inmate gang members, five were regular prisoners and three were women visiting the prison when the riot erupted.

El Porvenir was in lock-down Sunday and authorities were in the process of transferring Mara 18 members to other prisons. But now Honduran authorities are left to grapple with the problem of what to do with gangs so violent they can’t even safely be kept in prison.

Despite the shattered leg and fractured skull he suffered in the riot, 20-year-old Oswaldo Aquino lay in a hospital bed Sunday and pledged allegiance to Mara 18.

``I’m in this gang until the day I die, until the lord calls me to his side,″ Aquino said. ``In this gang, we’re ready to die for one another.″

In the bed next to him lay a fellow gang member suffering from multiple wounds who had ``18″ tattooed across his chest, a skull tattooed on his shoulder and the name of a dead comrade stenciled across his throat.

El Porvenir is a low-security prison farm where suspects are held while they await trial. The government transferred Mara 18 members to El Porvenir and other provincial prisons from penitentiaries in the capital, Tegucigalpa, to avoid gang violence.

Now there may be nowhere for the gangs to go.

In the burned out shell that was El Porvenir on Sunday, non-gang members said they would stage another riot if authorities tried to reintroduce gang members into their prison’s population.

``We’ll never let them return. If they send them back we’ll defend ourselves,″ said Marlon Rolando Hernandez, an inmate awaiting trial on drug possession.

Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 are Central America’s largest gangs, with an estimated 100,000 members between the ages of 8 and 35 in Honduras alone.

They and other gangs were born in the 1980s in neighboring El Salvador and moved north to U.S. cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco along with Salvadoran migrants.

Deported from the United States _ where the Central American gangs are blamed for hundreds of murders, robberies and assaults _ mara members brought the gang system to Honduras, where their ruthless discipline and fixation on death-obsessed tattoos helped them flourish.

Some maras teach members English and many gang members want to go to the United States, a country they view as a gang paradise.

``The gangs up there are respected and well-organized,″ said Marlon Enrique Valazquez, a 21-year-old Mara 18 member who suffered several gun shot wounds in the riot. ``We’d like to be part of something like that.″

Some gang members said they escaped death during the riot by hiding under the corpses of fellow gang members. The nicknames of the dead give an idea of the mara’s image _ a man called ``Demented″ had been held on murder charges, while ``The Devil,″ ``Poison,″ and ``Badman″ were accused of the same.

Young men like these are not likely to make it legally to the United States, but poverty-strapped Honduras doesn’t know what to do with them either.

``They should build separate prisons for the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18 so they don’t kill each other,″ Hernandez said.

Valazquez said people who join gangs as teenagers face discrimination and violence the rest of their lives.

``Even if we reform and go to look for a job at a factory, nobody will hire us because of our tattoos,″ he said.

Disgusted by gang violence like many Hondurans, sales clerk Blanca Santiago said her country ``should send them all to the Mosquito Coast,″ a deserted, bug-invested swamp on the coast of Honduras.

One man who wouldn’t give his name put it more bluntly as he waited in front of the hospital where injured gang members were being treated.

``We should just kill them all,″ he said.

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