“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 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs originated in the streets of Los Angeles as immigrants sought protection from existing gangs by forming their own.
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 e-mail address as a way to keep in touch.
“I have all the technology I want in here,” he said with a laugh.
A hardened view
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.”
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