Published on Monday, June 28, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
When Deportation Is a Death Sentence
Sending U.S. Gang Members back to Honduras can amount to Killing Them
by Tom Hayden
In May, 105 alleged gang members, including an undisclosed number of deportees from Los Angeles, burned to death in a Honduran prison while guards watched through a closed gate and did nothing. Faulty electrical wiring was blamed. Just one year before, 68 others died in what also appeared to be an accidental prison fire but which investigators later discovered had begun with a mass execution by police firing at close range.
In the last five years, more than 900 kids, 18 and younger, have turned up dead in the streets, ditches or dumpsters of Honduras. Government officials here estimate that 20% of the victims were killed by police or private death squads. Many had tattoos and were alleged to be gang members; others were simply homeless.
The Honduran prison system overflows at twice its capacity, and U.S. State Department documents report malnutrition, poor sanitation and beatings. In a juvenile facility I recently visited, there were 30 teenagers in a 30-by-20-foot cell without a toilet. "We wait until morning," one boy explained. None of them had been charged. Chickenpox was spreading among them.
What does a criminal justice crisis in Honduras have to do with us here in Los Angeles? For one thing, we're helping perpetuate the cycle. The deportation of gang members from the United States, and particularly from Los Angeles, is destabilizing countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In Honduras, 80% of the people already live in poverty, and 40% subsist on less than one U.S. dollar per day. Yet about 7,000 criminals were deported to Honduras between 2000 and 2003.
It is unclear from the data exactly how many of these were gang members. But several years ago, Honduran officials told The Times that there were 33,000 gang members wandering their streets, most of them tied in some way to Los Angeles-based gangs. Though that number seems almost certain to be inflated, it reflects what is undeniably a substantial problem.
These young deportees are the fruits of war. They came to the United States as child refugees from conflicts sponsored by Washington, then formed gangs as homeless youths on the streets of Pico-Union. When rounded up and deported to Honduras (or other countries in Central America), they become targets for rivals, vigilantes and police.
Some have arrived back in Honduras and set up regional replicas of the gangs they belonged to in L.A.; I talked to an armed, underground 27-year-old gang member in a McDonald's in San Pedro Sula who assured me authoritatively that this brother had set up the local Honduran branch of the L.A.-based gang Mara Salvatrucha.
Now the problem is only going to get worse with the recent sweeps by immigration authorities in Los Angeles, partly aimed at rounding up and deporting gang members. But the sweeps appear to be popular politically in the United States, and few Americans seem concerned about the fate of the deportees — even though U.S. law specifically discourages the deportation of anyone who faces torture or death back home, whether he is a gang member or not.
Here's another aspect of the crisis in Honduras that should be of concern: Some of the brutal measures being used against alleged gang members there have actually been imported from the United States.
Honduran President Ricardo Maduro, for instance, likes to lead dawn police sweeps himself, using tactics he says he learned from his American friends. "I saw how it worked in New York, and I like how it worked," he told the Associated Press. "Instead of taking the long route of accumulating proof of types of crimes committed, we opted to make it illegal to belong to gangs." Under a law passed after Maduro's election, a tattoo is sufficient for incarceration.
Honduran officials met for guidance with then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's staff in New York, and with the theorists of "zero tolerance" policing at the Manhattan Institute in New York. The staff of Giuliani's foundation later visited Teguchigalpa for consultations.
By then, the New York experiment was unraveling from excesses. The shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from West Africa, had generated widespread revulsion; thousands of young men had been detained unconstitutionally; civil rights lawsuits had forced the dissolution of the city's anti-gang police units; stop-and-frisk practices were ordered reformed.
Los Angeles sheriff's deputies also visited Honduras in 1997 for training workshops that led to the formation of the Honduran police anti-gang units. Martha Savillon, an attorney in Teguchigalpa now representing homeless children, said the deputies' rhetoric about "community policing" sounded good but that in practice, the ill-trained Honduran police would "just gather intelligence, target and detain, and act as guardians of the database," a secret law enforcement tracking system.
And so the already-crowded prison system was flooded with thousands of detainees, cramped in unsafe conditions that are simply catastrophes waiting to happen. More fires, whether caused intentionally or by official neglect, are inevitable unless U.S. deportation policies are challenged.
Current policy is like sweeping the trash out the backdoor of the U.S. and letting the Honduran police burn it.
Tom Hayden, a former state senator and author of "Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence" (Dimensions, 2004), recently visited Honduras.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times