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4 Presidents Seek Help in Gang Battle

Central American leaders say the groups pose a hemispheric threat, augmented by U.S. deportation of criminals.

April 02, 2005|Chris Kraul, Robert Lopez and Rich Connell | Times Staff Writers

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The presidents of four Central American countries issued an international plea Friday for help in their struggle against gangs, saying the criminal groups pose a grave threat to the entire hemisphere.

The request came as U.S. authorities revealed that they had issued an alert for the suspected mastermind of the killing of 28 bus passengers near San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Dec. 23. Alvaro "El Snoopy" Acosta-Bustillo, 28, is a suspected member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang and already may have entered the United States illegally, officials said.

The presidents of Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala met here in the Honduran capital to discuss common approaches to dealing with gangs, which together with drug trafficking are the most pressing law enforcement problems the nations face. The growth of gangs, augmented by mass deportations of Central American criminals from the United States in recent years, has caused crime rates to soar.

The Central American leaders, led by Honduran President Ricardo Maduro, said they would ask the World Bank and other international development agencies to fund programs to help deported gang members get training and jobs once they land back in their native countries.

"We will create a Central American fund to consolidate resources and make fighting gangs an international struggle, not just a local one," Maduro told reporters.

The United States also is taking a greater interest in helping Central American nations fight two gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and a separate group that calls itself Mara 18, or 18th Street. They have their roots in the streets of Los Angeles, but have grown quickly amid Central America's social and economic problems.

The FBI has organized a nationwide task force targeting MS-13, the first of its kind concentrating on a single street gang. Sources say the bureau will deploy additional staff to Central America to help build a strategy that involves both U.S. and Central American officials.

Recognizing the criminal groups as an increasing threat to hemispheric stability, the U.S. State Department also is preparing a new initiative that will include economic programs to address the sociological roots of gangs, said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"If you want to solve the gangs problem, the critical element is sustained economic growth that provides alternatives. Youth in Central America have very limited economic opportunities," the official said.

Law enforcement sweeps in Mexico and the United States in recent weeks have resulted in the arrests of more than 100 suspected gang members in each country, the vast majority of whom were Central Americans.

After the Friday summit, President Tony Saca of El Salvador said the United States often sends deportees back to their native countries without providing their names or criminal records to authorities there.

"We need to start a database to watch these people," a Honduran official said.

U.S. authorities in Washington, however, said Friday that Honduran and Salvadoran consulate officials were provided criminal records on all deportees. The information also is sent with the deportees when they return to their native countries, authorities said.

Over the decade that ended in 2003, the last year for which full year figures are available, the United States deported more than 40,000 individuals with criminal records to Central America.

The presidents also said they were trying to implement a Central American arrest warrant, to facilitate detention of gang suspects. They announced a regional summit scheduled for April 28, to which U.S. and Mexican officials would be invited.

A Feb. 8 bulletin sent by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security described Acosta-Bustillo as a "mastermind" behind the Christmastime bus massacre and said he may have been headed to the U.S., according to a copy obtained by The Times.

One U.S. law enforcement official monitoring MS-13 said Friday that authorities believe that Acosta-Bustillo may have been headed to Long Island, N.Y., where the gang has been blamed for a series of violent crimes. His mother may also be living there.

Late last year, federal authorities on Long Island charged 15 suspected Mara Salvatrucha members with crimes, including murder and conspiracy to engage in shooting rival gang members and suspected government informants. The case is pending.

Acosta-Bustillo, a Salvadoran with criminal convictions, was deported twice from the U.S., federal authorities said.

Police think Acosta-Bustillo may have planned the bus attack with Lester Rivera-Paz, 29, a Honduran with a lengthy criminal record and extensive connections to California. Honduran authorities said Friday that the two men were believed to be top Mara Salvatrucha leaders here.

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