SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The chihuahua, like its masters, seemed rather comfortable in prison.
The dog scampered after a roach that crawled out from under the tiki bar, then calmly settled back into the lap of El Conejo (The Rabbit), a leader of the 18th Street gang.
“We take responsibility for the mistakes we’ve made,” El Conejo said, stroking the chihuahua. “And like good people, we want to change.”
Beside him, another high-ranking 18th Street member nodded, his forehead bannered in tattoos. “Violence just generates more violence,” he said.
In the prisons of battle-scarred Honduras, the country with the highest per capita murder rate in the world, such talk is good cause for skepticism. But it might be the best hope for a reprieve.
The 18th Street gang and its arch rival, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have taken small, suspicion-filled steps in recent weeks toward what church leaders and their backers at the Organization of American States are calling “a peace process,” careful to avoid the term “gang truce.”
The goal, the peace-brokers say, is broader than a mere cease-fire between the region’s two most notorious transnational gangs, both of which have thousands of members in the United States. They say they are trying to halt the spiraling drug violence and criminality that have brought new depths of misery and renewed instability to Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Although the gangs are not driven by political ideology, the negotiators have been drawing on conflict resolution tactics learned a generation ago, when the region’s civil wars triggered cycles of recrimination that were finally overcome at the bargaining table.
Forging peace this time seems far tougher. But in El Salvador, where a social worker, a priest and OAS officials first bought the two gangs together 16 months ago, the effort has produced an extraordinary shift.
According to government crime statistics, homicides in El Salvador have dropped more than 50 percent since the shot-callers in prison worked out a fragile accord and told their underlings to stand down.
Now the challenge is to translate the model to Honduras, where the violence is worse, the drug trade is more lucrative and the government is weaker.
Monsignor Romulo Emiliani, the Archbishop of San Pedro Sula, is pushing forward with the effort anyway. If he succeeds in Honduras, the armistice could extend to Guatemala and reach the gang’s franchises, or “clickas,” in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities.
U.S. law enforcement agencies are watching closely. “We’re aware of it, but we’re not getting intelligence one way or another as to whether it would have an effect,” said Ray Colgan, director of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, where MS-13 is the largest criminal group. “We don’t have the levels of violence here that they have down there.”
In Honduras, which recorded 85 murders per 100,000 residents last year, the gangs are just one party to the killings.
The country’s north coast has become the prime smuggling route for Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers moving U.S.-bound cocaine. Bar fights and other petty disputes are often settled with bullets. Criminal impunity reigns. And attempts to purge dirty cops from the ranks of Honduras’s police force have stalled, with the United States temporarily suspending aid last month amid growing evidence that officers have carried out extrajudicial killings of gang members and others.
The security crisis in Honduras has driven some, including OAS officials, to appeal directly to gang leaders to stem the violence, while cautioning that such a strategy carries obvious risks.
For one, the would-be peace-makers inhabit an exceedingly violent, unpredictable world where leaders don’t tend to live long.
On July 12, a day after meeting with OAS officials, El Conejo and a female companion were killed inside the 18th Street cell block, apparently from a grenade blast. Honduran authorities said the incident is under investigation, but initial reports indicate the explosion was an accident, not a targeted hit.
“It is a process, and there will be good days and bad days,” said Adam Blackwell, the OAS security official and former Canadian diplomat who has given Archbishop Emiliani and the negotiations international backing.
“It took four months in El Salvador to get the gang leaders into the same room together, and they were literally shaking with hate,” Blackwell said. “We haven’t been able to do that yet in Honduras.”
Both 18th Street and MS-13 originated on the streets of Los Angeles, expanding into Central America when their members were deported.
In San Pedro Sula, the gangs run lucrative extortion rackets and drug-dealing networks, using their prison confines as fortified commander centers from which they can safely direct operations. Built for 700 inmates, the city’s lockup is a ruin of crumbling concrete-block walls and rusting concertina wire, packed with 2,500 prisoners.
The gangs are locked in separate, more spacious cell blocks to keep them apart from each other and the rest of the prison population. Their wives and girlfriends come and go as they please, but guards only enter with the gangs’ permission — or not at all.
On a recent morning, the gang leaders granted an audience to Emiliani and a visiting delegation from El Salvador, which included the priest and social worker who have led the peace negotiations there. A Washington Post reporter was allowed to tag along.
They entered first into the 18th Street cell block and a skunky haze of marijuana smoke. Several dozen gang members lounged by a large flat-screen TV or ordered drinks at the tiki bar under a sign that read “Casino.”
The setting resembled a fraternity house, only with elaborate murals of guns and gang lore, and teenage lookouts posted at every window, perched on wooden crates suspended from the ceiling.
The gang leaders who received the delegation wouldn’t give their names. They ordered the music lowered and arranged plastic chairs in a circle for the visitors.
“We’ve taken the first step, but the police have to stop killing us,” said the man with facial tattoos, one of which was the L.A. Dodgers’ logo. “We have our dignity, too.”
Their appeal, in essence, was a peace offering to society at large, saying that the police persecution of their families had become unbearable and that they were willing to go straight. They had kids to worry about, they said.
The 18th Street commanders never mention their rivals, and as the delegation moved to the MS-13 cell block at the opposite end of the prison complex, a gang leader who introduced himself as “Marco” said a truce with his enemies “may or may not happen.”
The MS-13 wing had an elaborate carpentry shop, brand-new power tools and 60 hand-crafted bed frames that were stacked and varnished in a courtyard, ready for donation to a senior center as a gesture of good faith.
“Right now, we’re trying to show society that we can contribute,” said Marco, a genial, middle-aged man with a slight paunch, who said he was serving a 15-year term for murder. “We are doing it with deeds, not just words.”
Marco claimed to be the highest-ranking MS-13 leader in San Pedro Sula — an assertion backed by prison authorities — and offered his cellphone numbers and email address as a way to keep in touch.
“I have all the technology I want in here,” he said with a laugh.
In El Salvador, even as gang murders have plunged, other crimes have not, leaving many to doubt that members will give up their lethally enforced extortion schemes to make bed frames and baked goods. Few in Honduras said they thought the gangs would stop squeezing taxi drivers, shopkeepers and other businesses for the weekly “war tax” they exact.
Then there are other reasons to take a hardened view: The gangs are thought to be less structured and regimented than in El Salvador, so a peace deal made in prison might not hold on the streets if other crime bosses defy it.
And in El Salvador, the government’s involvement and quid-pro-quo approach to granting gang leaders better prison accommodations and other concessions has been crucial, observers say.
Honduras’s government has offered tacit support for the church-led efforts with the gangs, but getting state resources for rehabilitation and reintegration will be difficult in a country where basic services are lacking.
“This effort is not popular in Honduras. These gangs have committed horrible crimes and have left many with scarring memories,” said Blackwell, the OAS official.
Raul Mijango, a former Salvadoran guerrilla who helped negotiate an end to his country’s civil war, said that like Marxist rebels then, the gangs see themselves as fighting for their survival in a country that has failed to provide them with basic security: a decent education, job opportunities and safe neighborhoods.
“They’re really asking for the same thing — for the state to function,” Mijango said. “The question is whether society will be willing to give them a chance.”
© 2013, The Washington Post