July 1, 2005

Central America, U.S. join to fight gang crime

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Reuters) - Central American leadersagreed on Thursday to back the creation of a regional rapidresponse force to fight drug traffickers, terrorists and youthgangs that export violent crime across borders.

"A rapid response team would allow us to effectivelyprosecute crime and criminals," said Honduran President RicardoMaduro. "Whether it's gangs or drug traffickers or terrorists,we're talking about transnational crimes."

Maduro spoke at a meeting on regional security in theHonduran capital with leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador andNicaragua.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fisk attendedthe talks and called for more attention to fighting gangs thatfuel violence in major U.S. cities.

"We want to strengthen defense mechanisms, especially interms of gangs," he told a news conference.

The United States will not be part of the rapid responseteam, which will begin with units of police, military,prosecutors and judges in the Central American countries, withthe aim of eventually joining forces and operating on across-border basis.

As part of the security effort, the United States, Mexicoand Central American countries will exchange law enforcementinformation.

The United States also plans to fund a law enforcementacademy in El Salvador to train officials from across theregion to fight organized crime.

The United Nations says gang members number some 30,000 inHonduras, 20,000 in El Salvador and 10,000 in Guatemala.

The gangs, known as "maras," proliferated in Los Angeles inthe 1980s when a flood of migrants fled Central America's civilwars and poverty and adapted to U.S. gang culture.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a law ordering non-U.S.citizens who were sentenced to more than a year in jail to bedeported after serving their time. More than 20,000 gangmembers have been sent home to Honduras, El Salvador andGuatemala in recent four years, sowing terror in theirhomelands.

"We want U.S. help in fighting gangs, above all in terms ofinformation," Maduro said. "Many gang members are deported fromthat country, and we want to know about it so we can act in ourcountry to prevent crime by these people."