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HONDURAS-REPRESSION Jun-13-2007 (880 words) With photos. xxxi

Church workers: Repressing Central American gangs fuels violence

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (CNS) -- The heavy-handed repression of youth gangs has brought more violence to Central America, said church workers ministering to gang members.

Gangs such as Salvatrucha and 18th Street formed in the late 1990s when the U.S. government deported young people from southern California's street gangs back to a region still reeling from the wars of the two previous decades.

Amid the high unemployment and urban decay of Central American cities, the gangs blossomed and soon were widely blamed, whether they deserved it or not, for skyrocketing homicide rates and rampant drug abuse.

In response, some Central American governments sent army troops into poor neighborhoods and implemented so-called "hard-hand" laws that allowed police to jail young men simply for having a visible tattoo. Prison populations soared.

Such heavy-handed policies only have made the problem worse, said Virginia Alfaro, a Vincentian lay missionary from Spain who heads the prison ministry for the Archdiocese of San Pedro Sula.

"The prisons lack even basic hygiene, and there's not even an attempt at rehabilitation. The more youth they cram into the prisons, the stronger and more violent the gangs become," said Alfaro, who has ministered in San Pedro Sula's prisons for nine years.

"Repression hasn't stopped them, but instead has simply led them to change how they act. They're now more clandestine. They decided, 'If they're going to arrest us for having tattoos, fine, we won't have tattoos.' But they still belong to a gang," Alfaro told Catholic News Service.

Honduran prisons are deadly places for gang members. In 2003, 68 youths were killed in a prison riot in La Ceiba. Human rights activists claim the dead were murdered in cold blood. In a similar incident, 107 young people died in a 2004 prison fire in San Pedro Sula.

"If there's no effort at rehabilitation, then there's only repression and extermination," Alfaro said. "Violence in the prisons represents a policy of the government just as, outside the prison, social cleansing is state policy."

Maryknoll Father Thomas Goekler, who works in Chamelecon, a poor neighborhood on the edge of San Pedro Sula, said the state's security forces have targeted young people.

"Once we began to get the kids in our neighborhood on their feet, to get them out of the gangs, to have some success, the murders continued, but rather than the gang members killing each other, it was now the police who were killing the kids," he said.

In a country where drug traffickers and money launderers have found many accomplices in the country's political elite, young people have become scapegoats for endemic patterns of corruption, Father Goekler said.

Working with gangs has become fashionable in recent years, but Father Goekler, who has worked with youths in the U.S., China and Central America, said many of the programs, including some funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have little positive impact in poor neighborhoods.

Alfaro said popular conceptions about the gangs as instigators of violence make it easier for the state to carry out repressive policies.

"Almost everyone has been touched in some way by the increasing violence in this society, and the media has fed us a steady line that gang members are responsible, that the youth are bad people, evil people. And sometimes the youth decide to fulfill the role that's been assigned them. They are both victims and victimizers. But the stronger the repression, the more violently the gangs choose to act," she said.

Meanwhile, gang membership has grown in the region as gangs have offered young people something they weren't getting anywhere else: a sense of mission and importance, Alfaro noted.

"Inside the gangs you become someone, someone important in the neighborhood. They trust you with important tasks with which you have to comply. They give you protection," she said. "It's ironic that adolescents don't want strict norms or discipline, but they accept the discipline of the gangs, which is very strict, and which they didn't find in their parents or family."

Juan Carlos Aguilar, a young man in Father Goekler's program who managed to get out of the gang life before he was in too deep, said that "kids join gangs because something was missing in their families."

"There was no love in my family; my stepfather abused my mom and me," he said. "If kids don't find love in their house, they'll go looking for it in the streets."

Alfaro's ministry to youths in prison is focused on education, vocational training, legal aid, and scholarships to siblings and children of gang members to keep them from following the same path as their brothers or fathers.

"The future has only three options for many of these youth: hospitalization, imprisonment or death," Alfaro said. "They've accepted that fate and see the choice of giving their freedom or their life for their neighborhood as something positive.

"But they don't want their kids to live the same lives. That's the moment when we can talk with them about the future, where we argue that their children need them to be present in their lives. We can work with their kids as a way of being in ministry with them," she said.


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