Article: Social Cleansing
Police blamed in Central American gang murders
By Frank Jack Daniel
Guatemala City, March 6 (Reuters) - On the front line of a crackdown against Central America's violent street gangs, some police are executing suspects in tactics reminiscent of the region's Cold War era death squads, according to the United States and rights group.
Dozens of gang members' dead bodies showing signs of torture have been found in Central American cities in the last few months and human rights groups say security forces are applying a policy of "social cleansing."
The U.S. government, an ally of Central America's leaders, said in an annual human rights report last week that vigilante groups and police forces in Honduras and Guatemala have summarily executed youths and gang members.
On the streets of Central America, rights activists say it is an open secret that rogue cops are using torture and murder to try to wipe out the gangs, known as "maras".
"Everybody here talks about the executions -- men in blue, black and gray cars shooting at kids in poor neighborhoods, kidnapping them and taking them to lonely sites where they tie their hands and shoot them in the head," Honduran activist Berta Oliva said.
"We know which are the police killings. A gang member will shoot you in the street. We don't torture people," said Guatemalan mara member 'Psycho', 24, blue gang symbols tattooed up his neck and into his hairline.
The gangs are behind gruesome crimes across the region and are particularly feared in Honduras, where they are blamed for killing 28 in a machine gun attack on a bus.
Last year, Honduran gang members dumped decapitated heads in the streets with notes telling President Ricardo Maduro to stop his anti-gang crackdown.
Despite tough laws in El Salvador and Honduras which allow police to arrest youths sporting gang tattoos, under-funded and corrupt forces have been unable to contain the crime wave.
"The state doesn't have the resources to solve the problem with social programs so it uses 'dissuasive violence' as a control mechanism," said Emilio Goubaud, an expert on Guatemala's maras.
Central America was ravaged by civil wars in the 1980s and right-wing death squads linked to the army and police ran wild in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
After the wars the death squad culture remained, and in the 1990s hundreds of street kids were killed in crime clampdowns.
Now, rights groups say security forces and vigilante groups are applying the same methods to the mara threat.
Last week, Guatemalan firemen found the tortured body of Sergio Gomez of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, the third youth from the same neighborhood tortured and killed since December.
Gomez's parents and friends said he was arrested by police hours before his battered corpse was found.
Honduras' leader, Maduro, recently admitted police had killed some gang members, but insisted they were isolated cases. Guatemala also denies a policy of "social cleansing," and says any police that break the law will be punished.
Police blame the deaths on turf wars between the gangs.
"These could be revenge killings between them made to look like it was the police," said Guatemala City police detective Julio Mendez.
The maras have their roots in Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles and established a strong presence in Central America when, as illegal immigrants in U.S. jails, they were deported home in the 1990s.
Posted by elcanche at March 7, 2005 03:02 PM