SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — President Ricardo Maduro said Sunday that the massacre of 28 people aboard a bus here last week may have been a warning from organized crime to back off his aggressive campaign against gangs and drug traffickers or face open warfare.
Since Maduro took office in 2002, his "zero tolerance" anti-crime campaign has put 1,800 gang members in jail and hit hard at drug traffickers who use Honduras as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine headed to the United States. His anti-crime fight has drawn criticism from human rights advocates, however, who say it is overly repressive and ignores the root causes of crime.
Speaking at a news conference here, Maduro told reporters that the mass slaying of the bus passengers, including four young children, was an act of "savagery and barbarity the likes of which Honduras has never seen." He said it was carefully planned for maximum deadliness and terror -- and possibly to send a chilling message to his government.
"The probability is this was done to make us back off in the struggle against crime," Maduro said, adding that he had evidence, which he did not specify, to support that idea. "Far from that, we will strengthen it every day."
On Sunday, police detained four more suspects in Thursday night's massacre, bringing to seven the arrests made in connection with the killings. All detainees are members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said.
The bus -- packed with about 70 commuters, many of whom were returning from Christmas shopping -- was attacked by armed men as it rumbled through the impoverished Chamelecon barrio here. After spraying the bus with high-caliber machine-gun fire, the killers left a note claiming responsibility and signed by a long-defunct revolutionary group, the Cinchonero People's Liberation Movement.
The government dismisses the possibility that the guerrilla group was involved. It says the attack was either the work of organized crime groups -- who paid gang members to kill the commuters randomly to terrorize the government -- or that Mara Salvatrucha members carried out the killings on the turf of a rival group, the M-18, in an act of murderous one-upmanship.
A Stanford-educated economist who was Honduras' central bank president in the early 1990s, Maduro has said from the beginning of his term that fighting crime is his top priority. He told reporters Sunday that every morning, he wakes up asking himself what he can do to stem a crime wave that in recent years has engulfed his nation.
Maduro believes Honduras faces slow economic death unless it can win the fight. Foreign manufacturers who operate the nation's many maquiladoras, the factories that form the basis of the economy, are increasingly disenchanted with violence.
Fighting crime is also a highly personal mission. Maduro's son, also named Ricardo, was slain after being kidnapped in 1997. In a brief interview here Sunday, he said the loss of his son led him to reenter politics and take up his offensive against gangs and organized crime.
Maduro said he and several of his Cabinet ministers continued the fight despite constant threats, the most recent of which, days before the massacre, spurred him to increase his personal security detail.
The zero-tolerance campaign has targeted gang members by classifying them as criminals by definition, much as Spain does the Basque militant separatist group ETA or Germany the various neo-Nazi groups. He says the measures have reduced kidnappings by 90% since he took office, car thefts by 75%, and homicides by 30%.
There are an estimated 30,000 gang members in Honduras. Their ranks have swelled as the United States has deported more than 9,000 Hondurans convicted of criminal offenses since late 1998.
The Chamelecon neighborhood, where many of the massacre victims lived, received a new police station and 100 more officers to patrol its unpaved streets under Maduro's program. The widow of victim Emilio Lopez said Sunday that the program seemed to have been working -- until the shooting that killed her husband and wounded her 10-year-old son, also named Emilio, as they were returning from a gift-buying expedition.
Emilio Sr., who worked at a factory supply warehouse, may have saved his son's life by shoving him under a bus seat when the shooting started. The father died of several gunshot wounds, while the son survived a bullet wound in his chest.
"It had become more peaceful around here, until this happened," said Maria Lopez, who after burying her husband Saturday is left with three children to raise.
Like many grieving families in her neighborhood, she seemed in a state of shock. "My son asked in his hospital bed this morning how his father was, and I just couldn't tell him that he's gone."
Maduro's program has its critics. Although they do not doubt Maduro's sincere desire to quell crime, they question his approach as overly repressive.