November 27, 2005

Hondurans vote amid gang slayings

By Miguel Angel Gutierrez

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Reuters) - Hondurans voted for a new
president on Sunday choosing between a hard-liner who wants to
recall the death penalty to curb gang murders and a liberal who
would bolster security to stop the terror trail.

Clamping down on tattooed youth gang members known as
"maras," who are behind a wave of beheadings, eye gougings,
rapes and other violence, is the key election issue in this
poor Central American nation.

Porfirio Lobo, a father of 11 children who practices the
tae kwon do martial art in his spare time, has spearheaded a
drive to bring back capital punishment after almost 60 years to
end the slayings.

Rural strongman Lobo, of the ruling National Party, led in
opinion polls in the run up to the elections, several points
ahead of Manuel Zelaya, a logging magnate, who espoused a more
lenient line to stop the gang violence.

Zelaya, a guitar-playing motorbiker running on the ticket
of the main opposition Liberal Party, wants to establish life
in jail sentences for slayings and to double security forces on
the streets.

"There is a lot of crime and after 8 p.m. we have to lock
ourselves inside," said Eulalio Martinez, a 68-year-old farmer
voting in a dirt-poor neighborhood of the capital that is
riddled with mara violence.

"Two days ago four bandits assaulted my nephew. They
stripped him naked," said Martinez after casting his vote in a
school, its walls covered in mara graffiti.

The maras have their roots in a wave of convicts sent back
to Central America from the United States in the 1990s. With
thousands of members, they are blamed for establishing Los
Angeles-style gangs in the region.


Maras have threatened even more violence if the death
penalty is brought back in this country of 7.2 million people.
It was abolished in 1946.

"There are going to be more dead people, more violence,
there is going to be war," a mara known as "El Maldito" (The
Little Evil One) told Reuters.

"The death penalty is going to wake up many gang members.
Even former members will come back," said the 23-year-old, his
body covered with tattoos of spiders and scorpions.

Lobo, a wealthy grains and cattle farmer, is unrepentant
about his "firm hand" stance against the gang violence.

In an interview with Reuters on Friday he recalled a case
where maras broke into a house to rob it but ended up killing
an entire family with axes, raping the women in the process.

"For this type of crime, the death penalty has to be
applied," said Lobo, an anti-abortionist who as leader of
Congress also pushed through a law banning same-sex marriages.

Honduras blames youth gangs for a gun attack on a public
bus that killed 28 people returning from work or Christmas
shopping last December, the worst attack of its kind in recent
years in Central America.

The winner of Sunday's election will replace President
Ricardo Maduro. Honduran presidents cannot seek re-election.
There are three minor candidates alongside Lobo and Zelaya.

(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia)