San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Honduras Stiffens Anti-Gang Law

TEGUCIGALPA(EFE) – Honduras’parliament on Jan. 19 passed a new lawdesigned to lock up for decades young peopleconvicted of mere membership in astreet gang.Pressed by citizens angry over a Christmas-week bus massacre, authorities are alsodiscussing the possibility of constructingmore prisons to hold gang members, andusing the criminals for forced labor.The draconian legislation passed lastweek designates a 20-year jail sentence foryouth belonging to organizations such asthe Mara Salvatrucha, the street gangblamed for the Dec. 23 slaughter of 28men, women and children on a bus in thenorthern city of San Pedro Sula (TT, Jan.7). Those determined to be “leaders” ofsuch organizations would face 30 years injail.Lawmakers also approved by a widemargin a measure automatically grantingbail to any citizen who, in self-defense, orin defense of a family member or his or herproperty, kills a member of an “organizedcrime group.”The new gang law also prohibits bail forany gang-member suspect accused of committingany crime. Citizens in the past havecomplained of gang members being releasedon bail – or on their own recognizance –shortly after being detained.The law will take effect as soon as it issigned by President Ricardo Maduro andpublished in the official gazette. It willreplace Honduras’ 2003 anti-gang legislation– known as “Heavy Hand” – whichallowed police to detain youth just forsporting “gang tattoos.”DURING last Wednesday’s legislativesession, which lasted well into thenight, lawmakers also discussed passing anew law that would force prisoners tolabor, and authorize $1 million to build anew prison for gang suspects.The draft labor law, introduced bycongressman Leonel Ayala, would obligeincarcerated gang members to toil “onpublic works projects or activities insidethe prison.”Honduran gang members over the pasttwo years have been implicated in a seriesof macabre slayings in which bodies weredismembered and parts dispersed withnotes threatening and insulting authorities,including President Maduro.The 2003 heavy-hand law providedfor prison terms of up to 12 years for gangleaders, and four years for members. Sinceits passage, police have arrested more than2,000 people on charges of belonging to“an illicit association.”HUMAN rights organizations havebeen critical of Honduras’ anti-gang legislation,arguing it casts too wide a net.Rights activists claim hundreds ofinnocent youth have been swept up andimprisoned for having tattoos that policemistook for gang markings.Before the 2003 anti-gang legislationwas passed, there were estimated to bemore than 50,000 gang members inHonduras, though authorities estimatedonly about 5,000 of them were “hard core.”THE new anti-gang law came one dayafter a reputed gang leader thought to beresponsible for the Dec. 23 bus massacrewas found hanged in a jailhouse bathroom.Salvatrucha member Juan Jiménez,27, alias “The Bird,” was “executed” bygang members, according to ArmandoCalidonio, vice-minister of public security.Calidonio said forensic examinations indicatedJiménez was first strangled thenhanged from a rope tied around his neck inorder to make it look like a suicide.Authorities believe Jiménez washanged by other gang members who didn’twant him to testify against them.

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