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Dying Young in Honduras

Gangs with roots in L.A. are largely to blame for the increasing violence. But another group has blood on its hands as well: the police.

November 25, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The kids turn up dead nearly every day in some foul corner of this capital.

Some have been shot in the head. Some have been beaten with sticks. Some have been hacked to bits. Their bodies are dumped into muddy ditches or dead-end alleys like dolls chucked in the trash.

Many are scarred with the crude black tattoos that mark them as gang members, probably victims of an internecine war over drugs or street corner space. But even more appear to be kids with no criminal history.

In the last five years, by one count, more than 700 youths 18 or younger have turned up dead in Honduras, a vast majority in two major cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. The number has grown each year, jumping from 66 kids in 1998 to a projected 230 this year.

By comparison, Los Angeles -- with a population more than double those of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula combined -- saw 108 homicides of youths 18 or younger last year and 83 this year to date, not including cases of child abuse, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

One reason for the deaths here is an explosion of gang violence during the last five years. Police estimate that more than 33,000 gang members stalk the country, most of them tied to Los Angeles-based gangs. They kill one another for points, for respect, or just for fun.

"It's like a game of 'Doom' to them," said Cesar Ruiz, the city's chief homicide inspector, referring to a violent computer game.

But at least some of the children were killed by police officers bent on wiping out suspected gang members. President Ricardo Maduro held an extraordinary news conference last month in which he admitted that at least 23 kids had died at the hands of state security agents over the last five years.

Human rights groups and the United Nations believe the figure to be much higher, as does the national police department's internal affairs investigator. They say the government has allowed ad hoc death squads to flourish both in the department and among private citizen militias.

"I don't think the government has issued a policy to the military or police that says, 'Go kill kids,' " said Bruce Harris, regional director of Casa Alianza, a group dedicated to protecting street children. "But I would say that either through direct action or inaction, there's state responsibility in the murder of children."

Blanca Valladares keeps a tattered manila folder with a few blurry photos of her son, who was found dead in a police station holding cell in May.

Seventeen-year-old Franklin Noe Valladares wasn't involved in gangs, she said, displaying a photo as proof. He is standing shirtless in a grassy meadow. His narrow chest is thrust forward with the cockiness of youth. He has none of the tattoos that gang members here receive as part of their initiation rites.

Police brought him in for questioning on suspicion that he stole a wristwatch from another youth. Although the investigation is still incomplete, Blanca Valladares believes police beat her asthmatic son, who then had an attack, collapsed and died.

Franklin was the second son Valladares lost. Her oldest child was shot and killed by an angry drunk four years ago. His killer also remains at large.

"I spend my days crying and crying. I ask God for help to move ahead," she said, her face trembling with the effort to block tears. "Five months have passed, and they have said nothing to me. I want answers."

Casa Alianza was the first to sound the alarm about the growing number of dead children. Five years ago, the group, which is affiliated with the New York-based Catholic charity Covenant House, began noticing more and more slayings of homeless kids.

Casa Alianza heard stories from the children it took in, about kids being rounded up for questioning by police and their battered bodies appearing in the street the next day. The group was told of white trucks similar to police vehicles that would take kids off the streets, and of cops dumping gang members in rival turf, ensuring that the youths would be attacked.

Casa Alianza began gathering evidence. In one case, two teens allegedly were taken by police officers for questioning in a town outside the capital. The youths were later found dead, stabbed with ice picks and their genitals cut off.

In another case, four people -- ages 15, 17, 19 and 32 -- were found slain at four spots around Tegucigalpa after having been taken in by police for questioning. Each had been shot with the same weapon, the corpses scattered apparently to throw off investigators.

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